Returning to her family’s upscale, New York apartment from Art College, Aura (Lena Dunham) struggles to make sense of or find a purpose for her life. Seemingly only suffered by her mother (Dunham’s real life mother, the artist Laurie Simmons.) and resented by her younger sister (Dunham’s sister, er…Grace Dunham), Aura hooks back up with eccentric, nihilistic, childhood friend, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) who’s carefree attitude Aura envies and resents at the same time. Through Charlotte, Aura meets Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a fellow video artist and Keith (David Call), a sous chef and the film seems to hinge on which one of these men Aura chooses or more pertinently, which of these men choose her.
Lena Dunham, soon to be universally famous for her hit comedy series, Girls, has a made a film very similar to Garden State, in both plot and context. Both pieces are concerned with returning to the family fold after extended periods away, both are uncomfortable and socially awkward, both are written and directed by either a current or future sitcom star (Zach Braff of Scrubs being Garden State’s auteur.) and both are relatively slight and feel a little like calling cards for talent. However, whereas Braff’s Andrew Largeman had his father’s death as the reason for his return and his subsequent moping about, Dunham’s Aura has no such excuse. Overwhelmed by ennui as she sits in the gulf between college and possible real life, the good decisions she makes either backfire or she fails to follow through, as for the bad decisions…it’s probably best not to talk about them.
A tale of distance and the distances between us. Aura fails to connect with anyone from her old life, her mother is exasperated at her lack of drive, her younger (brighter) sister struggles with having her back in the house and any attempt to meet new people usually results in embarrassment for her and only her. All events are seen from Aura’s perspective and it’s possible this is just how she sees it, which doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Aura’s home is all cold, hard surfaces and right angles. Voices and footsteps clatter about, unable to find a place to rest and sounding oddly out of place. Galleries and the restaurant where she works are full of people who know their place in the world (and just how unfair it can be) whilst Aura stumbles and stutters her way through everything. Unable to slot in properly yet, you feel life is going to kick her around for a while before she learns it’s patterns and tropes.
Dunham is an engaging presence, fearless in her depiction of an unflattering character and is helped out by both her real family and a selection of edgy performances from the New York indie scene. Her writing is acute and accurate to the situations, nothing is forced or overplayed. The dialogue both sharp and sad comes out naturally and nothing seems to have been inserted purely for comedy. Everything just happens and whether it raises a smile is probably down to how much you can relate to Aura’s plight and awkwardness.
The title derives from the miniature chairs and tables, cabinets and wardrobes her mother photographs for her unexplained art (which must pay well, given her apartment). The furniture could be viewed as a metaphor for how tiny Aura feels in her timid new world, or as a suggestion for how Aura could cope with everything by downscaling her expectations, or as a warning to focus on the small things for happiness. Or it could just be a arty art thing dreamt up by Dunham for pretentious title purposes. Who knows?
An extremely self conscious film, performed without a hint of self consciousness or irony. Just about dodges the “New York Film Student” pit. Difficult to pull off and all the more enjoyable for it.