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Adult Children: Struggling to Grow Up


Mother and daughter in "Tiny Furniture"

“Girls,”the new HBO show, dissects the lives of four young women as they leave childhood behind and struggle to navigate the adult world. Certainly not an easy task for these college grads as they extract themselves from parents (“No more money”), unpaid internships (“I am really going to miss your energy”) and boyfriends (“It’s a bummer, but people do outgrow each other”). The show generated immense media buzz for 24-year-old writer/producer/actress Lena Dunham.

While parents play a secondary role in the HBO series, Ms. Dunham puts the mother character front and center in her first film, “Tiny Furniture.” The film looks at the post-college malaise that swallows up the lead character, Aura, when she returns to a Tribecca loft shared with her successful artist mother and her high school senior sister. (Ms. Dunham plays the role of Aura and her real-life mother and sister play the mother and sister; her father declined a role!)

Since many of us are about to welcome our own college grads back home, we thought it might prove instructive to watch the 2010 “Tiny Furniture,” perhaps as cautionary tale. 

There’s no real plot to the film. Basically it follows Aura as she boomerangs back (“It’s my home too”) and wanders around a pristine white loft as her mother and her sister go about their purposeful lives. She eventually lands—and then quits—a job as a restaurant hostess, hangs out with bored friends who make YouTube videos, and allows a platonic boyfriend to crash in her apartment while her mother and sister are on a college tour.

While most reviews considered Aura’s perspective, we were most curious about how the mother, Siri, was portrayed and about her reaction to her daughter’s “post-grad delirium.” Siri, as with her real life alter ego, is an artist who photographs dolls and tiny furniture to “create self-contained worlds that function as psychological spaces.” (Good luck translating.) Aura seems noncommittal about her mother’s success until one day, when questioned about a missing case of wine (downed by her and friends), she lashes out, screaming and crying at her mother, “Did you ever have a job that wasn’t taking pictures of stupid tiny crap? Siri remains nonplussed, letting Aura rant and storm off.

While Siri often remains maddeningly calm (and incredibly patient), Aura occasionally pushes her buttons with a “sense of entitlement” and her incomprehension of why her mother could possibly want the boyfriend to move out. At one point Siri asks in exasperation, “Do you like living here?” Aura looks stunned, “That’s such a strange question. I love living here!”

Throughout the film, Aura wants to sleep in her mother’s bed, and finally Siri allows her daughter to climb in, and the tension melts. There’s no resolution; the film fades to credits with Aura rubbing her mother’s aching back while snuggling next to her.
Although a bit slow, the film portrayed the bundle of contradictions that tangle our new college grads: They love being home and they want to be independent; they want a career yet are scared to leap into the cold world. They’re still works in progress, which is often easy to forget; just because they come home with a pricy degree doesn’t mean they have a play-by-play game plan. And even if it did, given the economy, it’s hard to put that plan into action.

So as parents we try to sympathize—and assume multiple roles from career coach to therapist—without encouraging slacking. While it’s hard for us, it’s even harder for our young adults. In one scene in “Girls,” an gynecologist tells the character played by Ms. Dunham, “You could not pay me enough to be 24 again” Ms. Dunham answers, ”Well, they are not paying me at all.”

Although probably not its intent, “Tiny Furniture” makes clear how much has changed since we baby boomer parents were on the cusp of adulthood. Life at age 24 seemed easier in the 1960s and 70s when jobs were plentiful, college tuition and rents cheap, and relationships followed a traditional path. Maybe we need to show a little more understanding and patience as our adult kids try to find their way, even if they are driving us crazy in the process!

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