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SXSW '12 Review: HBO Series 'Girls' Solidifies Lena Dunham's Place As A Bold New Voice in American Comedy

by Drew Taylor
March 12, 2012 9:25 PM
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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.

Girls Lena Dunham HBO

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."

Girls Lena Dunham HBO 2

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] 

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  • LA2000 | March 12, 2012 11:08 PMReply

    Glad to hear this turned out great. But I was a fan of "Tiny Furniture" and was really rooting for "Girls."

    I am, however, hating the fact that Dunham is looking increasingly airbrushed in the press photos. Her "flaws" are her charms. Scrubbing them away may be the natural inclination of a robotic marketing department in "Sex and the City" mode, but it undermines the authenticity of the project and her brand.

  • the problem | March 12, 2012 11:02 PMReply

    It's weak to sweepingly dismiss all detractors of a person widely labeled "the new voice of a generation" and "the voice of the modern female." Those labels are purposely divisive, totally premature, possibly dead wrong. And yes, Criterion's endorsement of Tiny Furniture, essentially a college thesis attempt, is also kindling for the fire of Dunham skepticism. It's no secret that Criterion's announcement caused a number of "indie" filmmakers and producers, not just internet commenters, to exclaim, "what?!" and "really?!"

    A core problem with Dunham is that she's shrewdly apolitical at a period in history when corruption and class conflict, both nationally and internationally, are raging with no end in sight, and when much of America's youth population is suffering economically and without much authentic representation and "voice" on TV. There also seems to be an amnesia among pop culture writers on the accomplishments of many female comedian pioneers and female actors in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, ones who didn't solely rely on eternal debates and feelings about sex and dating, or who did so at least in hope of progressing discourse, which they did. A similar argument could be made about the acclaim for Bridesmaids: it's success was seen as more of a success by those who took the bait of recent, overly reported social media drivel that said "women are not funny" and "women can't, don't, and must never fart." Many women seemed to meet the movie's accomplishments with "Gee, thanks?"

    Even the name of Dunham's series "Girls" suggests a limited scope---20 and 30something "girls" on a couch gossiping about boys, albeit with Brooklyn art references subbing for Manhattan shoe fetishes. HBO seems to be saying, SITC was what women used to be, we're almost embarrassed we were responsible, and now, Girls is what women are now.

    As the so-called "voice of a generation," Dunham's concerns so far are primarily based around sex and her hot-cold experiences of NYC privilege. The latter seems to get a pass, fine, but is her acclaimed writing and insight that much different from fat comedians who base entire acts and careers around being overweight, or black comedians in 2012 who, by choice or financial incentive, base comedy around race? Or Southern comedians who make irritating, winking lower-class observations? Many of Dunham's critics just think she's boring, predictable, and a little against-the-grain, all things considered in a decade of protests, wars, and turmoil.

    Toss in a major newscaster's daughter-turned-comedian, who is similarly unproven (her YouTube video is dime a dozen), and it's tremendously conceded to argue Dunham and Girls isn't a byproduct, however well-produced, of New York's incestuous, exceedingly out-to-a-$200-lunch media and social culture.

    Dave Chappelle, for example, was the voice of a generation. Dunham, for the time being, is the witty voice of a percent.

  • Freddie | March 13, 2012 10:51 AM

    "but simply 'a' new voice." Seriously, not sure how he jumped to that conclusion, but some paint with a wide brush I guess.

  • Problem's Problem | March 13, 2012 9:35 AM

    The problem with The Problem's post is that this reviewer - and many others singing Dunham's praises - is not calling her "the" new voice of a generation/modern females, but simply "a" new voice. There's plenty of room for representations of all different kinds (socio-economically and among women) in the American film/tv landscape: for race/class, look at HBO's also-produced The Wire and Tremewomen, and for women, most of Showtime's successful new programming. Legitimately insinuating that American independent film is for want of highly-praised films centering on the "99%" is absurd.

    Finally, I think you'd be hard-pressed to spend 200 dollars on lunch anywhere in New York, unless you're buying champagne. Cheers!

  • Bill C. | March 13, 2012 4:38 AM

    Well said. What's frustrating to me is when critics / reporters decide to anoint someone as the "voice of their generation" when their body of work is so small. How about we wait a few years -- or a few projects -- before we decide that someone is the voice of a generation. "Someone To Watch" seems a lot more realistic.

  • the problem | March 13, 2012 2:16 AM


    Whoops on the misspelling. In reflecting what are many valid issues raised with Dunham, her work and her growing acclaim, if the comment seemed alarmist or extremist it wasn't supposed to. It was written in a rush. But the suggestion by you and this site that anyone who has serious problems with Tiny Furniture or Girls should "move on" and "if you don't like it, don't watch" is juvenile and hypocritical on a website of movie criticism and opinion.

    Why should the ire at Dunham, and any debate from naysayers about her portrayal of modern women, and problems with her anointment as a generation's "voice" be discouraged? A show with far less buzz like Whitney, and Whitney Cummings, continues to be open season. Ire at Tyler Perry's "brand," which is similarly based and limited to his shallow projection of social experiences, is so vehement and common it's practically a marketing asset.

    The reason why it's "okay" to boldly criticize Whitney Cummings and her show for what they (mis)represent, and not Lena Dunham is that Dunham is a little closer to home for many in the cliquish media and certain influential social circles.

  • Christopher Bell | March 13, 2012 12:27 AM

    Yeah, you spelled "conceited" wrong, but hopefully the police around these comment saloons give what you said a shot. I think you do make some pretty solid points but they're a bit too heavily coated in extremism/alarmism. I don't like Tiny Furniture but what most bothered me was the craze around a movie I not only disliked, but found extremely minor in all respects. Still, her comedic style wooed plenty of people and the vitriol against someone so modest, grateful, and harmless now seems born less out of frustrated confusion and more from out-right mean spirit. Of course that doesn't mean that she should be free of criticism, but something level-headed is appropriate. This review makes me want to check the series out more than the trailers did, especially after hearing it's more polished on all levels. Maybe, like TF, it's not for me... but I'll give it a chance. And if it doesn't click, it doesn't click. Move on.

  • TMN | March 13, 2012 12:15 AM

    Amen to that, my friend.

  • Cinematic_High | March 12, 2012 10:11 PMReply

    She's a tremendous talent....and I look forward to this show.....and her lovely figure.

  • Kate | March 12, 2012 9:38 PMReply

    Awesome! Definitely looking forward to watching this.

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