“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Debut filmmakers would be wise to heed Charles Dickens’ opening words to David Copperfield, which reference the self-reflexive willingness to not cast the main character as the “hero,” and instead forfeit this title to a secondary character. But, for so many of America’s New Wave indie filmmakers, turning to biography for their first feature is de rigueur, their upbringing or struggle towards the limelight proving fertile ground for comedy and drama. Whether these stories warrant the broader platform, however, brings to mind the broader question: just how narcissistic is the American New Wave?
Recently, three comediennes have used semi-autobiography to varying success for their debut: Lena Dunham’s highly personal Tiny Furniture, Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (a non-linear account of a messy breakup) and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, dubbed “the most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made.” The success of each film, the first launching Dunham’s career, the second netting Akhavan’s debut a stunning 99% Rotten Tomatoes score and the third winning Robespierre Best Debut from the National Board of Review, is clear.
It’s commonplace for debut films to house biographical elements. The best (Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother or Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, to name but two) avoid undeserved hagiography, augmenting their story for drama without compromising authenticity. For anyone who’s ever heard a friend or passer-by claim that their life merits its own TV series/film, it’s readily apparent that the opposite is likely true. Transcribing a standard conversation between two 20-somethings would not, typically, lead to an Oscar-winning screenplay. Indeed, each of the above films’ appeal lies in the main characters hitting sharp notes, where a studio rom-com would otherwise try for catharsis or laughs. In Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s character faces a grim blind date with a stoned senior, who portentously asks “You’re Iranian! Wow — tell me, what is the scene like in Tehran?,” to which she bathetically replies “I spend most of my time in Tehran watching Disney videos with my grandmother while she untangles jewelry.” It’s typical of the film’s dialogue, which mocks much of New York’s social scene, without ever becoming overwrought or unbearably sardonic.
The approximation to real life of each film is nonetheless striking. All women play ciphers of themselves to varying degrees. Tiny Furniture hews most closely (and most obnoxiously, depending on your experience) to Dunham’s real-life persona (mother and sister play themselves, Dunham shoots in her own apartment and features her mother’s artwork). In Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s character is bisexual, a novice filmmaker, living in Brooklyn, with a brother who works as a urologist — so far, so true to life. Meanwhile Obvious Child features Jenny Slate as a fledgling New York comic — whose material was volunteered for the film. Countless think-pieces have attempted to deconstruct “millennials,” this amorphous group whose flaws and virtues seem to shift depending on whom you ask. Yet, while detractors have pointed to the autobiographical elements of these films as further proof of a boundless millenial ego, each avoids hagiography.
The flaws of each heroine are objectively and freely shown, whether it’s the regressive parental dependence of Aura in Tiny Furniture, the egotism of Shirin in Appropriate Behavior or the cringe-inducing drunken acts of Slate’s comedienne in Obvious Child. The filmmakers tease viewer sympathies with their characters, unwilling to make each and every observation a sparkling bon mot. Instead, the lines are often clunky or disarming, as in the affected melodrama of Shirin informing her roommate “I’m just going to lie here and try to forget what it felt like to be loved.”
Conventional wisdom dictates that millenials love to talk about themselves. While these films certainly won’t disprove this notion, it’s a cynical one to begin with. By this reasoning, Woody Allen would be a quintessential millenial, with the bulk of his catalogue containing thinly veiled ciphers of himself. Comparisons between Dunham and Allen are apt (despite the former’s vocal and repeated denouncement of the latter via Twitter); both produce self-conscious monologues that acutely package the otherwise intolerable concerns of waspish New Yorkers, dispensed through an alter ego. However, Allen largely paints his cinematic counterparts as the sympathetic hero (most recently with Jesse Eisenberg in Café Society), irrespective of their jittering monologues and narcissism. In Tiny Furniture, the dialogue is anticlimactic (without ever quite reaching the glacial pace of some mumblecore efforts), instead trying for realism (asked about her night’s events, Dunham’s Aura replies “I took three Klonopin and woke up next to a spoonful of peanut butter”).
Undeniably, a question mark hovers over those writer-directors who imbue biography into their works — how to proceed once you’ve exhausted your archive of biographical material? While the cast and themes of Tiny Furniture may painstakingly recur in Dunham’s HBO series Girls, Akhavan and Robespierre have successfully crafted their follow-ups with new and less biographical material. Akhavan is co-writing and directing the forthcoming adaptation The Miseducation of Cameron Post, while Robespierre’s 90s-set comedy Landline debuted at Sundance to a positive reception and was acquired by Amazon Studios. They have all rebutted the assumption that biography is equivalent to lazy screenwriting. The lucidity and frankness with which this new wave of filmmakers can dissect their own lives speaks volumes to their talents, boding well for their efforts to come.
Jonathan Mahon-Heap (@jonnymahonheap) is a London-based copywriter, working for Mario Testino and his online platform, Mira Mira. He is an escaped corporate lawyer, who occasionally needs real-time subtitles for his New Zealand accent.