As far as young independent filmmakers go, writer/director Lena Dunham has been the subject of an excessive amount of conversation and handwringing, even by the admittedly loose standards of the ever-chatty Internet age. Her first feature, “Creative Nonfiction,” was accepted to SXSW and the follow-up, “Tiny Furniture,” won the Best Narrative Feature award at the same festival. That film also managed to attract quite a bit of attention, with comedy world luminaries like Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow singing its praises and some comparing her confessional, no-nonsense style to the early work of Woody Allen.
It’s just that there were just as many people who jumped up to condemn her – for her low-rent mumblecore aesthetic, her privileged upbringing, and (shallowly) her physical appearance. But that didn’t stop her, or even slow her down. She’s got a brand new HBO series debuting in mid-April called “Girls,” produced by Apatow (and his “Freaks and Geeks” co-conspirator Jenni Konner), and the first three episodes were screened today as a kind of SXSW homecoming. As far as homecomings go, this one was pretty spectacular.
The main thrust of “Girls” (and just to be clear on the format, it’s a 30-minute sitcom-ish thing, no dead bodies are discovered and, from what we saw, no sexy vampires are present) is established in the opening sequence, wherein Hannah (Dunham)’s parents inform her that they will no longer be offering their financial support. And before you can type #firstworldproblems, she’s delivering an awkward spiel about the importance of her unpaid job as a publishing intern and the progress she’s making on her first collection of personal essays. It sets the tone for the series well – smart, snappily written, poignant, and wonderfully uncomfortable (the whole series seems to exist in the jams of awkwardness most shows typically avoid). This isn’t exactly a plane crash standing a group of disparate survivors on a mysterious jungle island, but it does make for a pretty nifty set-up, with elements of comedy and drama able to sneak in and intermingle nicely.
And while the main thread of “Girls” does focus on multi-hyphenate Dunham’s character, it is called “Girls” for a reason and there are several satellite characters that are just as intriguing – Alison Williams (Brian Williams‘ daughter, cast in the part because of the YouTube video where she sings along to the “Mad Men” theme tune) plays Marnie, Hannah’s more put-together roommate, who’s struggling with her relationship to a too-nice boyfriend; Jemima Kirke plays Jessa, a loosey-goosey free spirit who, in an early episode deals with her unexpected pregnancy; and Zosia Mamet playing Jessa’s cousin (she has a reduced capacity in the group, her big hang up is that she’s still a virgin and she knowingly deconstructs “Sex & the City” in her introductory scene). All of the actresses are aces, and each of the characters so complex and layered that they could warrant their own show. Those who were impressed by “Tiny Furniture” but were somewhat wary of Dunham’s screen presence will probably appreciate the division of time between the various subplots; Dunham’s voice remains, while being wonderfully interpreted by other actors.
And that’s the main impression you’re left with after watching the first three episodes of “Girls” – what a tremendous leap forward it is from “Tiny Furniture.” On a technical level, it’s akin to the difference between a bottle rocket being set off in a dusty backyard and the first manned mission to the moon. This probably has to do with its Apatow-enhanced budget (per episode it probably costs more than ten “Tiny Furnitures”), but the cluster of episodes we saw were both written and directed by Dunham, and her proficiency behind the camera is shocking. (Maybe she was taking night classes?) There’s a moment in the third episode where we follow Marnie from behind as she attends a swanky art world party, and the shot is scored to LCD Soundsystem‘s “I Can Change” (metaphor alert), and the shot is so outrageously gorgeous that you really cannot believe it’s the same person who made the generously grubby “Tiny Furniture.”
But it wouldn’t mean a whole lot if the show just looked better, and thankfully Lena Dunham’s maturation isn’t limited to expert craftsmanship; she’s also gotten better as a writer. While this is certainly in the same wheelhouse as “Tiny Furniture,” with Dunham riffing on the hyper-literate, occasionally sarcastic, perpetually doomed character, there’s more purpose here, more heart, and a sense of actual tension. She may just be the same aimless intellect, but here that feels a little bit dangerous. She’s a character who is sad but always optimistic; it’s what differentiates her from her mumblecore counterparts who are content to go through life using air quotes and only being able to muster enthusiastic shrugs. Dunham’s Hannah feels and worries and laughs, and her relationships with her girl friends and her “boyfriend” (played by Adam Driver) are hilarious and compelling and achingly real (many of the scenes feel like they incorporate pointed improvisation).
The sensation you feel at the end of watching “Girls,” though (if you aren’t a little choked up – the last scene of episode 3 is a doozy), is one of discovery. Lena Dunham, for all the shit that’s been talked on the Internet (sort of amazing given the postage-stamp size of the movie, maybe her canonization in the Criterion Collection is controversial?), is a bold new voice in the American comedy landscape. And while the screening of “Girls” episodes was supposed to be a homecoming, it felt more like a coming-out party. The series is beautiful and brilliant and, in a few weeks, all of American will join in the Lena Dunham discussion, only this time, it will be hard to argue her faults. [A]