One could reasonably regard Elisabeth Subrin’s debut feature, A Woman, A Part, as a version of Tiny Furniture set 20 years in the future, with its main character, Anna (Maggie Siff), a mid-40s actress exhausted by her empty role in a nameless sitcom, returning home from Los Angeles to New York for a reunion with her former acting buddies, who stayed behind to pursue projects closer to their hearts. But unlike Lena Dunham, who simultaneously prods her characters’ narcissism and generational angst with culturally specific dialogue and behavioral tics, Subrin doesn’t conceive Anna’s dilemma beyond the boilerplate characterization of a depressed woman seeking some semblance of warmth and affirmation from those in her past life.
Subrin’s screenplay relies on clichéd passages of reconciliation between characters that merely affirm the constraints of finding sustained success, whether professionally or emotionally. When Anna returns to her desolate apartment in New York, she flushes a bottle of pills down the toilet and fishes an air mattress from the closet. After she plugs in the air pump, Subrin stages a shot of Anna sitting beside the mattress, cheek in palm, silently waiting for it to be completely inflated. Such an on-the-nose moment speaks to Anna’s deflated sense of self and indicates the writer-director’s unimaginative approach to articulating the character’s heartache.
The film’s depiction of friendship seldom pushes past insights predicated on a fundamental tension between characters. When Anna first shows her face after returning to New York, it’s at a birthday party of a friend, Kate (Cara Seymour), whose reaction to seeing her is a mix of excitement and anxiety. Turns out, Kate harbors some resentment for Anna, who she believes used their stage show the decade prior as a stepping stone to a Hollywood gig. Subrin, though, brings no incisive perspective to either of these characters’ actions; indeed, much of what stagnates the film is a reluctance to take anyone to task for their hang-ups. This approach is less empathetic than inert, as it becomes successively clear that these characters are simply personified perspectives of complexity rather than singular people with complex desires.
The film’s wittier bits indicate Anna’s sense of situational irony, like when she misleads a woman at Kate’s party by giving her morbidly incorrect details about her sitcom’s new season. Yet Subrin never explores an irony of the film’s own: how Anna uses her financial success as a source of condescension toward others who would enthusiastically inquire about her work in good faith. In a screenplay overrun with concerns of artistic purity and staying true to oneself, the film finds no space to thematize wealth as a source of Anna’s supposed betrayal beyond Kate’s vague assertions of her selling out.
Throughout its running time, A Woman, A Part never shirks the sense that its scenes have been plucked from numerous other films about the difficulty of going home again. The most grating is a night of drunken karaoke between Anna and Isaac (John Ortiz), another buddy, with each smiling on the outside but crying on the inside as they throw caution to the wind and realize they’ll never be able to recapture the abandon of their youth. When Anna falls flat onto her face while walking on the sidewalk the next day and decides to lie there for a moment, it’s a direct reference to the poster of Tiny Furniture, thus further highlighting the film’s distinct lack of personality.