"I'm freaked out by you kids because your parents were too perfect at parenting," Ben Stiller's forty-year-old character tells some twentysomethings in Greenberg. His 26-year-old co-star, actress-filmmaker Greta Gerwig, belongs to that generation, as does award-winning actress-director Lena Dunham. Coincidence?
Gerwig and Dunham were recently prominently featured in successive New York Times Arts & Leisure profiles that took seriously their importance to current film. Here's A.O. Scott on Gerwig, who in addition to her most visible role to date in Greenberg, starred in and co-directed several "mumblecore" movies. (She started out as an aspiring playwright.)
Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence. She seems to be embarked on a project, however piecemeal and modestly scaled, of redefining just what it is we talk about when we talk about acting.
In fact, many critics seem to think Greta Gerwig is the best thing about Greenberg. (New York's David Edelstein went so far as to praise her and then say, "Greenberg would be a heckuva movie if we could just get Greenberg out of there.")
One of the things Gerwig is implicitly talking about, says Scott, is "the particular confusions - emotional, professional, expressive - facing young, rootless women in 21st century America." That could easily apply to Lena Dunham, who won the top narrative prize at South By Southwest with Tiny Furniture, earning her a laudatory mini-profile by The New York Times' David Carr. Carr, who has daughters only a couple of years younger than 23-year-old Dunham, seemed disarmed by her self-discipline and maturity. He quoted the director of the festival saying, "My jaw dropped," when she saw Dunham's prizewinning film, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. "It was so original, so smart, so funny."
Carr himself writes, "While Ms. Dunham's film may reflect the quandaries of a 23-year-old, there is nothing juvenile about its execution. Tiny Furniture brings to mind Larry David's ability to take his own tics and add humor and stakes to make them matter to others."
The trailer for Tiny Furniture — in which Dunham plays the lead and her mother and sister play her mother and sister — indicates that Dunham's protagonist, Aura, is, like Gerwig's, surrounded by omega males. Also, her sister tells her, "I think you sound like you're the epilogue to Felicity," which made me — of this same generation — laugh aloud.
Without eliding the differences between Gerwig and Dunham, there seems to be something going on here. Both women are emerging from a DIY aesthetic made possible by technological advances, not to mention their expensive liberal arts educations (Gerwig at Barnard, Dunham at Oberlin.) Both are based in New York and seem to favor a subtle, low-key, hyperrealist aesthetic. And though the narrow slice of humanity from which they hail — white, urban, educated — is already pretty well-represented in the indie space, even that supposedly enlightened quadrant has had few female narrators. (Though there are a few: Carr compares Dunham to Larry David. I haven't seen Tiny Furniture — yet! — but from the looks of it, Nicole Holofcener seems like another apt antecedent.)
From early indications, too, these women seem to be refreshingly outside the young actress ingenue trap. Gerwig, Scott writes, "is more goose than swan - a big-boned and a little slouchy, indifferent to the imperatives of gracefulness that can land you romantic-comedy roles and a spot in the Vanity Fair 'Young Hollywood' group portrait. When she takes off her clothes - which is not infrequently - it does not seem teasing or exhibitionistic but disarmingly matter-of-fact." Meanwhile, Dunham's character records YouTube videos of herself in her underwear and endures commenters calling her fat. She told Carr, "I don't really have a lot of vanity and I find a real pleasure in the acting."
It gets to something that both of these young burgeoning stars also share: a self-aware, unaffected confidence, one that seems to have empowered them to be not only in front of the camera but behind it. For all the tut-tutting about millennial entitlement, maybe there's something to that theory of perfect parenting.