Monday, December 20, 2010

Reality Bites My Ass: Tiny Furniture

I'm a really big fan of the "new adult" genre that publishers are kicking around: lit geared toward the 18-25 set, about coming of age in a world very different than that of our parents.  (Last year's Commencement is a poignant, funny example.)  In some ways, angsting in one's early twenties might seem like whining of the White Girl Problems or Stuff White People Like kind: many recent liberal arts college grads have parents who won't let them starve, a host of knowledge, and free time to burn, so what's the problem?

Maybe I'm outing myself as a liberal arts college grad here (in case the rest of this blog wasn't any indication), but there are a lot of problems.

Liberal arts degrees might not score you a plum job in the working world, but in this economy, neither will more "practical" areas of study.  More and more college grads are having to move back home for financial reasons.  And the early twenties are weird.  You're not quite a kid, not quite an adult.  The older generation might scold you for perpetuating adolescence, but with no direction or means of support, what the hell else are you supposed to do?

In her debut film Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham explores these issues more or less successfully.  She plays Aura, a newly-minted film theory grad who's spent the last four years in Ohio (if I had to venture a guess, I'd say at Oberlin) and is now returning to her native Tribeca.  Aura's single mom (played by Dunham's real mother) is an artist who never really held a day job, so she's not pushing her daughter into the realms of full-time employment.  Though Aura could use some direction.  She's recently been cut loose by her boyfriend, is growing more distant from her best friend who's still in Ohio, and just wants someone to tell her who she should be.

As Aura drifts through a hostessing gig and flirts with two losers (one of whom would be cute if he lost the hipster 'stache, the other way too hirsute and lispy for my taste), hanging out with her "bad influence" of a childhood best friend (Jemima Kirke, who's fantastically British and offbeat), I kind of wanted to shake her.  Tell her she's been given every advantage and just to snap out of it already.  And to be fair, she does get quite whiny, she has terrible taste in dudes (her ex-boyfriend doesn't sound like much of a prize either), and Dunham isn't always the best actress (neither is her mom--their scenes range from touching to downright painful).

When I didn't want to smack Aura, though, I recognized the early twenties experience in all its teeth-gritting uncertainty.

Because it's a time when the world expects you to emerge from college fully formed, knowing exactly who you are, when you're only just beginning to figure it out.  It's a time when you realize the hothouse university environment, enriching as it may be, hasn't taught you any actual survival skills, and you're going to learn more from  your mistakes than the things you do right.  It's a time when relationships change, especially family dynamics (Aura's relationship with her overachieving teenage sister, played by Dunham's real-life sister, is incredibly real in its up-and-down nature).  It's a time when you have to reassess exactly who and what you want to be, and even though you'll learn down the line that you'll constantly change your mind, at this point you just want to make a decision and be done with it.

So, sure, Tiny Furniture can be aimless and totally twee, but it also speaks a lot of truth.  Kudos to Dunham for not backing down and giving the quarterlife crisis a fair, honest representation.

Though I do wish the ending would have been more concrete.

(And I realize in making that wish, I may be missing the point.)

What do you think of this "new adult"/quarterlife genre?  Any recommendations?  Leave a comment!


  1. A friend of mine just wrote a book about the subject. Maybe it would make a good Christmas present for you!

  2. Hey Mike, thanks for commenting, and for the recommendation!