In part because I saw them within days of each other, I kept thinking about Young Adult when I watched Tiny Furniture earlier this month. I’d like to say I hated them both, but it’s not that simple. Rather, neither made me feel very good about myself, or about anyone in it, or really about humanity in general. After Young Adult, I walked out despising the main character, Mavis Gray, played ably by Charlize Theron. In Tiny Furniture, I couldn’t stand our main character Aura, played by the film’s writer/director, Lena Dunham. They’re very different characters, but I noticed a lot of similarities. Chief among them was this: It’s not just that Mavis and Aura kinda suck – it’s also that they never redeem themselves.
The Gen Xer film critics I read found Young Adult scintillating; as a geriatric millennial, I found it less so. Perhaps I’m too young to give up hope on a redemption arc. Or perhaps that is what a redemption arc looks like, and I’m too young and naive to really embrace it. Then again, Tiny Furniture, which generated a lot of indie-flick buzz last year, is about the young and naive. Specifically, it’s about girls my age. And yet, that redemption arc I spoke of earlier? Poof. Completely nonexistent.
Interestingly, both of these movies garnered a lot of critical praise. Young Adult’s Oscar buzz has mostly fizzled out for writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman, and co-star Patton Oswalt, but Charlize Theron was nominated for an Academy Award for her role. And Tiny Furniture was the indie flick to see this past spring. Lena Dunham has been appointed by whoever decides these things the voice of our post-grad, post-feminist, post-economy generation. On April 15 her show Girls debuts on HBO. (Read Catherine’s take on the Girls trailer here.) But Young Adult was cringingly awful to sit through, and after watching Tiny Furniture, it seemed obvious to me that whoever thought a) that the film was representative of our generation or b) funny really needed to have their head examined.
So here are two movies, with two upsetting, even disturbing women apparently representing two different generations. What gives?
Despite wincing at nearly every scene in Young Adult, a directorial decision I found fascinating was the attention the camera paid to Mavis maintaining and enhancing her beauty – close-ups of cuticles and body wax and tangled hair extensions. It’s interesting that seeing the grotesque behind-the-scenes business of getting a woman looking gorgeous is still so rare on-screen.
I guess you could switch out some words from that sentence and come up with a relatively apt summary of the film: It’s interesting that seeing the grotesque behind-the-scenes business of getting an addict to grow up is still so awful on-screen.
Because she is an addict. The fact that this definition is even debatable is in my mind one of the darkest aspects of the film. Labels help us come to terms with what we’re seeing. Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman, and Charlize Theron conspire to create a character who is funny, but fucked-up; successful, but unstable; overall, extremely difficult to put into a box. Her comedic elements are rooted in the same soil that is her deep dysfunction. I’m appalled at the film for including it and appalled at myself for actually laughing out loud at some of her behavior. The film throws that laughter back in our face. It holds up a mirror to the audience, reminding us that we reward the addict, or the popular girl, for this flavor of misdeed. In fact, we expect it. In fact, we think it’s pretty great, even when its ever-widening ramifications are increasingly present.
Those recurring makeup montages hint at the larger coverups in Mavis’ life: that she’s popular, successful, and happy. An addict scams. A popular girl pretends.
Somehow in creating a reprehensible character, Diablo Cody has managed to show enormous sympathy towards women. Popular girls don’t get a lot of play in literature and cinema. All-star athletes get their biopics and geeks get their revenge, but popular girls typically have to become lowly and unpopular in order to attain perspective, grace, and sympathy. (See: Quinn Fabray from Glee, Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, everyone in Mean Girls.) But lest we forget, those girls, made into such objects by the men around them (both the men they slept with and the men they rejected), are real people, too.
Tiny Furniture does not aim for a message nearly as lofty as Young Adult. I’m comfortable saying it is a much worse film. The only really courageous aspect of Tiny Furniture is that Dunham is pretty honest about what it feels like to be female but to not have the ideal female body type – in other words, to be an “ugly” girl. She’s unapologetic about her body in private, but in public lets other people dress her, talk down to her, dictate her desires, and push her around. Especially handsome men, who, as this movie aptly demonstrates, can be skillful at using insecure, unpretty women to get what they want.
That being said, it is difficult to imagine plummeting to rock bottom as hard as Aura does. It suggests a singular unawareness of herself that is incongruous with everything else we know about her. It was really hard to pity her, given that “being stuck” with her parents is moving back in with her cool artist mother in a Tribeca loft. Oh, with her enormously rich friends and an endless supply of pills. Tag this shit #firstworldproblems, or even #whitepeopleproblems, yeah?
Strangely, I think it’s supposed to be funny – like the twisted humor we draw from Young Adult. To Diablo Cody’s credit, Mavis is actually funny. Aura is not funny. Lena Dunham keeps drawing attention to Aura’s flaws, almost narcissistically, but it’s very difficult to find them humorous or take it lightly when its more grotesque than amusing. If Young Adult is an extremely dark comedy, Tiny Furniture is a tragedy masquerading as hipster comedy.
I saw Tiny Furniture on the recommendation of a friend (who hated it) and the question she had for me was Why couldn’t she just say no? No to these men in her life, in particular, like Keith, who emotionally manipulates her into sex outdoors in a pipe on the street. Like self-aggrandizing Jed’s obsessive self-entitlement and constant belittling of her. Why couldn’t she just say no? But that’s the whole point of the movie. The whole movie is examining why she didn’t just kick this freeloader off her couch, ignore the chef, and move to an apartment in Brooklyn with her best friend.
And the answer is because she’s a terrible person.
I say this with enormous sympathy. There is a point, while recovering from a breakup, moving back home with your parents, and feeling ugly and worthless, when you become an increasingly intolerable person. And you know how awful you’re being to your family and friends as you freak out about your own issues with dependence and independence and co-dependence but you’re stuck in some weird loop and you can’t stop. And then you start trying on new personas and wearing clothes you would never wear and you get a minimum wage job to “be real.” Then you discover just how little you make working a week at a restaurant. And you think, in the most entitled way possible: But I went to college! I am a really smart person, everyone says so! I thought this would be easier.
But, it’s not. And until you figure that out, for a little while, you kinda suck.
So I watched two movies about terrible people and both were difficult to sit through. They were terrible in slightly different ways. One was prettier than the other. One was more privileged than the other. One was younger. One was pushier. The cinematography of both carefully framed them in their bleak habitats, unable to relate to anyone around them.
But the question remains, readers: what is the point of making a film about a terrible person with no redemption arc? Does Aura grow at all, or learn anything? Does Mavis? Is addiction an excuse for being insufferable? Is privilege? Are either of these portrayals sympathetic? Does it matter? Which movie did you like better?
Answers due by Friday at 5pm. Check your work.