Lena Dunham has had the sort of year most recent college graduates can only dream about. In the space of 12 months the 24-year-old New Yorker has won both the South by Southwest festival's Best Narrative Feature award and the LA Film Critics Next Generation award for her second film Tiny Furniture, seen the film go on to garner rave reviews on its cinema opening, and been signed up by HBO to write, direct and co-star in a new comedy series.
Along the way she has been described as "a storyteller of gigantic charm and subtlety" in Entertainment Weekly, called a "unique, truthful comic voice" by Judd Apatow (who will co-produce her HBO series) and hailed as "subtle and brilliant" by comedy king Will Ferrell.
Luckily, Dunham turns out to be the sort of grounded individual who finds the praise more bemusing than overwhelming. Possessed of a deadpan delivery that allows her to sneak some very caustic one-liners under the radar, she is also refreshingly open, enthusing about everything from Mike Leigh to the difficulties of finally moving out of her family home. "Really I've been living there an inappropriately long time," she says with a laugh. "I've just signed a lease on a new apartment this January but I'm finding it very hard to leave. I keep saying, 'well Italian people don't leave home until much later'..."
It's hardly surprising that Dunham finds it difficult to cut the umbilical cord.
She admits to being obsessed by family dynamics, citing Leigh, Lukas Moodysson and Lovely & Amazing director Nicole Holofcener as among her favourite directors, and has joked about how "unnaturally" close she remains to her parents, both successful artists.
The complexity of family relationships is the main subject of Tiny Furniture, which focuses on recent college graduate Aura's return to her childhood home. Given that it is filmed in the Tribeca apartment Dunham grew up in and that it stars her as Aura, her mother, photographer Laurie Simmons as Siri, Aura's ice queen mother, and Dunham's sister Grace as Aura's younger sister Nadine, just how autobiographical is it?
"I've always worked using my own life as the jumping off point," she says, "and obviously it's my home and my real mum and sister and it does reference a point in my life when I'd come home from college and broken up with my boyfriend and wasn't sure what I was going to do but after that the mix gets vaguer."
Yet the reason Tiny Furniture works so well is because of its clear authorial voice. The mopey Aura, unsure of her future and prone to dating unsuitable men, should be intensely irritating but instead, thanks to sly, knowing humour and refreshing honesty, Dunham pulls off the clever trick of making you care what happens to her even as you laugh. "I think it struck a chord because the time when you leave college can be incredibly disorientating," she says. "It's the first time your future isn't mapped out. I remember thinking what am I going to do now – before I'd always known I would be going to school or back to college or doing a summer course and suddenly there was this sense that I couldn't predict what would happen any more..."
Next up is Girls, the sitcom she is working on for HBO with Judd Apatow, co-producing.
Billed in some quarters as an anti Sex and the City, Girls, which also stars Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, David Mamet's daughter Zosia and Allison Williams, daughter of a US TV news anchor, will focus on the trials and tribulations of three twentysomethings in Brooklyn's Greenpoint.
There's a lot riding on it but Dunham seems unfazed. "I loved Sex and the City but I grew up in New York so I understood it was a fantasy, it's not how life really was in the city," she says.
'Tiny Furniture', Glasgow Film Festival (www.glasgow film.org) 27 February, 6pm; Bird's Eye View Festival, London (www.birds-eye-view.co.uk) 8 March, 8.20pmReuse content