Did Girls pave the way for a spate of self-mocking drama? The director of new film Never Better thinks so
Most of the self-mocking hipster drama we’ve enjoyed in the last couple of years basks in its own reflection. We’ve embraced and endured a planet-load – from tongue-in-cheek and indeed cheeky low-budget web series along the likes of Broad City and Be Here Nowish, to the almost painfully ironic The Bedford Stop – but to their credit, most of the work makes at least one point of its reflexivity. And just when you feel like you’re about to gag on the constant stream of self-pitying, precocious twerps of struggling artists and writers, along comes another filmmaker, and another film, to poke some home truths via those very same themes.
Following on from Lena Dunham kicking down the doors for squirmingly awkward, unflattering portrayals is first-time filmmaker Will McDowell. His theory about this hyper-aware brand of filmmaking? “I’m gunna call it ‘ECN: East Coast Neurosis’, and it’s a very well established thing.” And while we’ve become used to Brooklyn being scoffed at, camera angles that display dimples and upwards of size-zero nudity and overall paranoid delusions of entitlement, there’s still room for points to be scored across the post-Dunham canon.
Never Better, McDowell’s feature debut, charts the movements of some crushingly familiar, unworldly protagonists as they play out their early-20s across New York City and London. From the opening scene, it’s unapologetic and sodden with pop-culture references and a focus on the new, the shiny and glamorous – much like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. “There are a lot of Coppola references because she is such a secret comedian and makes subtle observations that are laugh-out-loud funny.”
Imitation is said to be the greatest form of flattery, but perhaps inspiration would fit better. If his work must be categorised in this genre of self-conscious filmmaking, surely there are works that influenced his movie? McDowell recalls when he first saw Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. “I remember first seeing it because my friend had told me I was like ‘the British one’, and completely connecting with it. It’s such an unflattering film, so dark and imperfect, and was a middle finger to the indie rom-com apocalypse that continues to freight-train through film festivals.”
McDowell’s coltish sense of humour is balanced by a cavalier attitude on output expectations within the industry. It’s well documented that Dunham made a heap of short films and webisodes at college before Non Fiction and the theatrical release of Tiny Furniture. In an industry that’s becoming paradoxical in its expense (production costs and rights) and conflicting availability (the internet), why bother with short format when you could save time and money?
“Storytelling with shorts tends, for me, to be too neat. I like the messiness of longer film pieces where your mind can wander, the plot can ebb and flow, and acting is important. I don’t like web series because I think they’re lazy. I do like Not Looking, though (below), because it’s a piss-take of HBO’s hyper-sincere Looking and I’m a mega-fan of Casey Jane Ellison, because Touching The Art – particularly the Miami episodes – is insanely good. They’re both so deplorably snarky and dumb.”
Never Better’s script is nothing if not brazen. In its poking fun at art school, one standout moment comes from fascinating performance artist Liv Fontaine in an explicit scene that will likely divide opinion. “To my surprise, my granny loved it and was completely unfazed. This is why (Harmony Korine’s) Spring Breakers is so excellent, because people ‘getting it’ really took a backseat on a film that got huge distribution.” McDowell also credits Charli XCX, and not just on her input. “She went to the Slade (School of Fine Art) for a year and knew the whole cast. We spoke about crits and how some people could really flourish in those environments, and other people struggled. Charli once showed a bunch of unicorn drawings that were polarising.”
“You think about what John Hughes did in the 80s and you look at today and it shows how conservative we’ve become. That’s why we should pay some dues to Dunham for doing this on an American level” – filmmaker Will McDowell
Her music supervision helped shape the film’s sound. She introduced McDowell to CuckooLander and the track “Dumb Dee Diddy Dumb”, “a real ‘you can’t keep me down’ anthem that makes my heart swell. This track, as well as Charli’s song “Sucker” – which plays over the ridiculous Arctic-themed photoshoot – are such unashamed middle fingers to industry BS and were essential to this film. Jamie Travis filled in the quieter moments with his wonderfully serene music, and there’s a childhood song in there too. It’s all very London-centric.”
In terms of his own freedom, he fights for Dunham to take the credit. “You think about what John Hughes did in the 80s and you look at today and it shows how conservative we’ve become. That’s why we should pay some dues to Dunham for doing this on an American level.” While the future looks bright for DIY filmmaking, it can at times seem like the quota is being filled fast. Perhaps moving away from the token cities (read: Brooklyn) will help broaden horizons. Berlin-based web series Polyglot is already making waves. McDowell is now based in the German capital, working on his next film “set in near-future Berlin” and co-runs his own production company, Futuramen. “I made this whole thing on my own, now I’d like someone to rub my back and tell me it’s all going to be OK.”