The bittersweet netherworld of the post-graduate is well-traversed territory in modern cinema, especially in films made by members of that particular fraternity, but in Lena Dunham’s captivating second feature, the state of confused unemployment, reckless abandon and transcendental homelessness becomes a viable genre all over again.
Dunham plays Aura, a 22-year-old, returning home to the fabulous Tribeca apartment of her successful artist mother (Laurie Simmons, Dunham’s actual mother), where her kid sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham, her sister) is still in high school and nothing fits as it used to. She’s still in touch with her best friend in college, Frankie (Merritt Wever) and they talk of getting a place together when she moves to New York, but the more Aura stays at home and hangs out with her old friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a dour, cynical young woman with no particular direction of her own, the more fragmented she becomes. She’s no longer in school, no longer climbing a ladder of any kind, instead, she mopes around the apartment, feeling disassociated, and tries — mostly in vain — to connect with someone, anyone, with whom she can share this awful feeling. She’s Ben Braddock before he meets Elaine, and gains a confidant. In desperation, she invites a graceless comedian (“Really famous in an internet sort of way,” Charlotte exclaims) to stay in the apartment while her mother and sister are away looking at schools. Jed (Alex Karpovsky) is quick-witted and nonchalant, but hopelessly devoid of tact and interest in Aura. Her other prospects are equally lachrymose: She gets a job as a day hostess at a local restaurant, where she answers phones and develops a crush on a sous chef (David Call), but he, too, keeps at a distant remove.
Dunham, whose own life is pretty well reflected in her work, is a fearless filmmaker, exposing both her body and her soul in equal amounts and not often in a good light. The key is, her artistic impulse doesn’t come out of an impulse of a limiting narcissism but a desire to accurately portray the world around her. Rather than work from a position of vanity, she extends a generous spirit to her characters, allowing each of them to act unto themselves, not just as an extension of Aura’s preoccupations. It helps that her DP, Jody Lee Lipes, and editor, Lance Edmands, are so in keeping with her vision, but its crucial that Dunham is such a skilled writer, capturing the essence of a scene without having to flummox it out. Her coup de gras is an obligatory awkward sex scene near the end that positions the participants — brilliantly — in a large outdoor pipe in a construction site in the dead of winter, just about the only release her character is afforded. Aura may be surrounded by self-absorbed Manhattanites, but Dunham is too shrewd not to include her protagonist amongst their numbers. The result is a tremendously sophisticated and assured debut, a comedy without grating punchlines and a drama without an ounce of phoniness.
This Criterion BD edition also includes an interview with Dunham by Nora Ephron; four shorts directed by Dunham, an essay by Phillip Lopate and a copy of her first feature, Creative Nonfiction.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
Bypass theater ticket lines. Buy movie tickets in advance at Fandango.com.