I blame Lena Dunham. It all started when Tiny Furniture premiered at SXSW’s 2010 Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. She took the reigns from the mumblecore pioneers Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha) and Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) and sold it to HBO. Movies made by twenty-somethings about twenty-somethings now has corporate money to share its millennial neuroses with the larger culture. Girls is a cultural phenomenon. After each episode airs, think pieces hit the internet and the comment wars ensue. Dunham is a household name and Hannah Horvath has inspired an entire generation.
It isn’t fair to compare writer / director duo Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers who directed the remarkable Fort Tilden to Dunham but it’s impossible not to. All three of them premiered their first feature at the SXSW Film Festival and all three of them took home the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. Both Tiny Furniture and Fort Tilden feature self-involved post-college twenty-somethings stumbling their way into adulthood in New York City. But enough with the comparisons because Fort Tilden is strong enough to stand on its own.
Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty) are best friends who live together in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who decide to go to the beach. In an uncomfortable opening scene, they are sitting on a rooftop listening to a twin-sister duo play an unbearable acoustic song. It sounds like an early Tegan and Sara song, if it were written by a preteen girl.* “I should’ve peed before this,” Harper writes to Allie, as the text message appears on the screen. And in this moment, the mood of the film is set in motion. Just before leaving the party and after being scolded by someone in the building for everyone being too loud, Harper wants to talk to a guy she noticed earlier in the night. This is where the beach is brought up and Harper and Allie invite Russ and Sam to Fort Tilden.
The next morning begins and the impossible trip to the beach develops into a comedy of errors. Harper won’t wake up, there’s no ferry service, and they only have one bike. The reality of a New York City resident yearning for the beach sets in. Allie called in “sick” to a meeting with her Peace Corps recruiter, just a few weeks before she heads to Liberia. Just outside their apartment they stumble upon a barrel on the street and Harper needs it for the apartment so she can put umbrellas in it. Harper makes the apartment “sex ready” by rearranging furniture, taking out candles and opening up David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest and placing it down on the couch, giving the illusion she is well-read.
As much as Fort Tilden borrows from Girls it also recalls Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. On their journey to the beach they encounter more than their fair share of mishaps and characters. Bliss and Rogers depict the very diverse borough of Brooklyn in a way that most filmmakers and television writers don’t. Riding around on bikes is different in their own neighborhood of Williamsburg than say Cobble Hill where Harper and Allie have a run-in with over-protective parents. Or when they make their way into the “ghetto” where they are scared to cross a busy intersection, confuse bodega workers when ordering iced coffees and watch their bikes get stolen while they are in a discount clothing shop.
Harper promised to bring molly so they must stop in Prospect Park to find her on-again-off-again fuck buddy Benji (Peter Vack) who is surrounded by his gay posse, including John Early, massaging Benji’s hands and stealing the scene with only a few lines. The movie is filled with cameos like this, including an awkward scene, in the apartment of Allie’s friends (played by Desiree Nash and Becky Yamamoto) who live in the “ghetto” and own a car but are smug Teach for America teachers who hate Harper.
We all know people like Harper and Allie. Heck, I see a lot of myself in Allie. We’ve all encountered similar caricatures and stereotypes within the cities we live in. Whether they are chatty cab drivers or self-entitled girls that phone their fathers when they are in a “crisis.” We all have friends who get financial help from their parents. We know do-gooders who work at non-profits and only watch movies at the Film Forum. Some of us want to join the Peace Corps and read only Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace novels. But we’re all a symptom of our millennial upbringings. Harper and Allie are approaching adulthood, meanwhile the future they were promised as kids is nowhere in sight. In reality we’re working for Whole Foods and reading a Mindy Kaling memoir.
The sun is already setting once they reach the beach. So much has happened along the way it seems impossible for them to actually enjoy the moment. Without giving too much away, these few final scenes are quite moving. Harper and Allie are vulnerable and literally exposed. It seems they are willing to do anything to have fun after the lengths they have gone to get here. Their last few attempts at salvaging their wasted day are awkward and reckless. There’s a pivotal moment in the final act of the movie where Harper and Allie can redeem themselves completely and they choose not to. It’s in this moment that I knew Fort Tilden was going to be my favorite movie of this year’s SXSW film festival.
* During the Q&A, Phoebe and Claire Tyers admitted that the song was written when they sixteen years old.
4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS