Tiny problems, Pariah-sized problems: a study of two debut films.
Recently I randomly watched two films from two filmmakers – films that were essentially the debut feature films of both. I was surprised, given how little I knew about them before I viewed them, at the parallels I saw between them, given the protagonists of each find themselves in very different life circumstances. The first I watched was Tiny Furniture (2010), the debut feature by Lena Dunham. The second film was Pariah (2011), the debut feature from Dee Rees. I appreciated both movies.
TINY FURNITURE (2010).
Tiny Furniture is about Aura (played by Dunham), a recent college graduate and newly single/heart-broken girl who has returned to New York City, to temporarily live with her artist mother Siri and teenage sister Nadine (played by Dunham’s real life mother and sister) – with the intention of eventually moving out and into an apartment with her college friend Frankie (who is yet to arrive). Aura’s busy working mother, a photographer who incorporates tiny furniture sets in her art, is, well, busy, and ambitious sibling Nadine antagonistic – both have established a clear routine and rhythm in the house that Aura can’t seem to synch up with.
On her first night back in Siri’s home, Aura accidentally finds Siri’s college diary, and begins reading it – discovering some strange parallels to her own life and personality. Reading aloud from the book is something she continues to do throughout this film, which follows Aura’s post-collegiate lull, lethargy, and pitiful attempts at picking up. Below this rather boring and mundane filmic landscape, however, Aura is essentially trying to figure out what to do with herself in life. Her forays into her mother’s post-college diary seem motivated by a mixture of lurid curiosity and a desire to find some sense of direction, by examining what her (fabulous) mother had thought and done at the same age (particularly as they are so similar).
Siri is very successful, and Aura very privileged – the house they live in (Dunham’s parents real home) is a spacious and chic loft, and Aura seemingly is still being supported financially by her. Despite this, Aura is floundering. Having just completed a degree in Film Studies, she is not so certain she wants to be a filmmaker, after a dispiriting stint as a documentary film professor’s research assistant. She has also just parted ways with her first boyfriend – a male feminist she dated for two years – as he had to return home to a different city to “build a shrine to his ancestors out of dying tree”. Aura is a little lost, and a little sad – she has no idea what she is qualified to do, is somewhat thrown by the different dynamic that exists in the household now, and sinks quickly into a state of utterly useless apathy.
You might be thinking: “First World Problems.” I wasn’t bothered at all by that particular aspect of this film, as I didn’t feel at any point that the filmmaker was asking the audience to feel sorry for this protagonist. She is simply presented as a clearly flawed, somewhat immature and, at this point in her life, clueless individual – and the characters around her are just as flawed (thus, feel very real). Aura is captured being nice and being spoilt, being bored and being desperate, being affectionate and being a brat. But she’s not a villain, or a hero, or any kind of role model – just a person, who’s a little lost in her head at this particular time.
Making her way through the mundane landscape of this film (and her head), Aura makes some frankly silly choices. She takes a very low paying job as a day hostess (not bad in itself, but seeking work related to her degree may have been useful). On the rebound after the departure of her college boyfriend, Aura tries to court the attention of two men she can’t seem to tell have little interest in her, Jed and Keith. She offers the homeless out-of-towner Jed a place to stay while her mother and sister are away, and prescription pills to Keith, which she scores from her equally privileged/equally lost “best friend” Charlotte. Only one of these results in Aura actually getting laid, in one of the most depressing sex/post sex scenes ever.
This is by no means a (completely) serious movie – I found it funny and sharply satirical in places. I also appreciate Dunham’s lack of vanity, and ability to poke fun at her own emotional neediness, desire for attention and imperfection. This is something she has obviously carried over to her HBO show Girls, and I’m somewhat in awe of her ability to fully go into some very unflattering places (there is a scene in this film where she references her own college YouTube video, which features Dunham in a bikini, in which friend Charlotte reads out some actual scathing comments left underneath it. I laughed out loud).
Also carried over to Girls were the actors Jemima Kirke and Alex Karpovsky, who play Charlotte and Jed respectively. Kirke is particularly good here – Charlotte is obviously the precursor to Jessa on Girls, however, this Charlotte character is less pissy, less mean, funnier, and a rather lonely figure. Karpovsky, who plays Ray on Girls, plays an unlikeable homeless hipster very convincingly! But in terms of fully going into some very unflattering places, there is a fight scene between Aura and Nadine that is cutting crazily close to the bone. The fact that Dunham wrote the lines in this scene for her sister to say to her, blows my mind. Here’s a SPOILER:
In summation, Tiny Furniture isn’t a likeable film about likeable people, but it is a well-constructed and very honest film, better than most I’ve seen in this particular genre (Mumblecore. The filmmaker doesn’t consider it to be of this genre, but it shares a few conventions). To me, it’s a snapshot of a surreal period where this character is caught between college and “real” life (or one place of certainty and another). And, stripping away the specificity of her circumstances, that floundering feeling is something I can definitely relate to.
As I mentioned earlier, Aura repeatedly reads from her mother’s post college journal throughout the film. The connection and similarity between mother and daughter is subtly hinted at throughout. Via the journal, Aura discovers mistakes that her mother made that she seems to be emulating in her own life. But Siri, a successful photographer, is also looked up to by Aura. She realises she wants to be as successful as Siri is within the art world… she just doesn’t quite know where yet, or how to get there. (How poetic then that this is the story/statement that kick-started Dunham’s career, that “created the way” to her ‘Girls’ success).
I appreciated this aspect of Tiny Furniture – the relationship between Aura and Siri. Aura and Nadine are lucky to have such a strong and positive female role model around. In my own life, I continue to search for and find those role models. And, given my own interest in (and ongoing struggle with) inherited traits from parents, positive and negative, Aura consciously considering and choosing what she wanted to emulate – and NOT emulate – really resonated with me.
Which brings me to the next film!
Dee Rees also draws on her own life in Pariah, transposing her real experience of coming out to her family as a lesbian onto a 17 year old girl, Alike – played by the very talented Adepero Oduye (whom I recognised from a Season One episode of Louie!). Alike is a straight-A student, and a budding poet and writer. She is also a virgin, coming into her identity as a somewhat butch lesbian – encouraged and accepted by her older best friend Laura, an out and proud lesbian who encourages Alike to try and pick up girls at a recently opened gay night club they hang out at.
Alike changes between “femme” clothing and the male clothing she feels comfortable in, in-between home and school – to assuage her homophobic and already suspicious mother Audrey (Kim Wayans). Alike’s younger sister Sharonda clearly knows, but has no qualms, with her sister’s orientation, and Alike is close to her father, Arthur (Charles Parnell). But her mother’s unhappiness and bigotry, her father’s marital infidelity, his encouragement (through awful denial) of Alike’s ‘closet’ status, and the thick dysfunctional atmosphere of hostility between these parents, make Alike’s environment extremely (and so unnecessarily) stifling. If Aura in Tiny Furniture has all the freedom to be herself but no direction or drive yet, Alike in Pariah has limited freedom to be herself, but plenty of drive to progress in life and just be who she is.
And, while Aura has the kind of mother she can discuss her sexual life with in detail (which she does in the film), Alike’s mother Audrey is isolated, dogmatic and emotionally tortured – because of this, she is incredibly dangerous to Alike, both emotionally and physically. Stuck in a loveless marriage with Alike’s father, Audrey is isolated and desperately unhappy. She seems to want to salvage the relationship, but Arthur is clearly having an affair. He rebuffs all Audrey’s attempts at communication and connection, simply refusing to engage with her in any way, but at the same time will not leave or end the marriage.
Some of the hostility Audrey shows Alike is connected to the hostility she feels for Alike’s father, and she grills both father and daughter similarly about their movements outside the house. What Rees (and all the actors) capture so brilliantly, with so few words, is this familial tension and dysfunction – all the characters and the interactions between them are extremely realistic, sadly familiar. Like Tiny Furniture, Pariah’s story and world are small but focused – what occurs within these stories is an inner change or realisation within the female protagonists. However, this change is more clearly articulated in Pariah.
Just as Siri disapproved of Aura’s friend Charlotte in Tiny Furniture, Audrey heartily disapproves of Alike’s friendship with Laura. In an attempt to sever that friendship, Audrey forces Alike to spend time with the “straight” daughter of a friend of hers from church – Bina. Unbeknownst to Audrey, Bina is at the very least interested in experimenting sexually, and the initially forced association between Alike and Bina quickly morphs into something else. This new relationship exposes Laura’s vulnerability and feelings for Alike, and places pressure on their friendship. But Bina isn’t necessarily interested in becoming a fixture in Alike’s life.
By the end of this film, Alike is forced from the stifling cocoon that is her parents home and the proverbial closet she has thus far been forced to stay in, despite internally being at ease with her sexual and gender identity. This metaphorphosis is called out literally through the poetry that Alike writes and recites to a teacher throughout the film (the poetry uses the butterfly motif). The awful pressures around Alike force her to make a firm choice about which direction to go in next, and thankfully, she has the inner strength to make that choice. She tells her father, as he tries to convince her to return to the (awful) family home after a violent outburst from Audrey: “I’m not running; I’m choosing.”
I really liked this movie. I liked that it captured a specific character that I had never seen on film – “coming out” stories are not new these days, but an African American young woman in this situation is something I personally had never seen represented on film before. And yet, what I liked even more about Pariah was that the story captured something truly universal, at the same time. The desire to just be who you are in peace, without abuse or judgement, is something that gets me choked up every darn time I watch or read a story like this.
If only we lived in a world where every individual could do just that.