I found myself oddly perturbed by Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, a self-assured DIY feature which, a few years ago, might have been called mumblecore and which, 25 years earlier, could have been a Jim Jarmusch or Susan Seidelman film.
As I watched Tiny Furniture, I could hear the echoes of the scrappy indie films that led a wave in the 80s, again in the 90s and again in the past decade. There's a freshness there, a sense of taking familiar material and making it uniquely Dunham's own.
So what was it that set me on edge? It may be Dunham's absolute confidence in telling a story about a character who, as the film goes on, gradually loses our sympathy. It's a gutsy move, particularly because the character, played by Dunham, is apparently an extrapolation of Dunham's life. And not just the character: She has her real-life mother and sister playing the character's mother and sister -- and sets it in her family's actual Tribeca loft.
Dunham plays Aura, just graduated from an Ohio college with an apparently useless degree in film theory. (Dunham graduated from Oberlin in 2008.) She has vague ideas of being a filmmaker, but the videos she's posted on YouTube have only hundreds of hits -- not exactly viral numbers.
Meanwhile, her sister Nadine (Grace Dunham), about to graduate high school, is pretty, more popular and more successful than Aura -- and snippy about it to boot. Aura's mother Siri (Laurie Simmons) is a successful artist assembling a retrospective of her work. Aura, however, is at extremely loose ends -- no job prospects, no real ideas for the future aside from getting an apartment with her best friend from college (Merritt Wever), who is a few weeks away from leaving Ohio for Manhattan.
Aura runs into a wild-child girlhood friend named Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who tips her off to a job as a day hostess at a nearby restaurant, which Aura takes (even though it only pays $11 an hour). She tries to hook up with a pretentious video maker named Jed (the unbearable mumblecore actor Alex Karpovsky) and flirts with a sous chef at her job, Keith (David Call).
But the less things go her way, the more petulant and desperate Aura seems to become. She makes worse and worse choices, blows up at her mother (whose complaints about Aura's behavior seem reasonable) and generally sees life as though looking through the wrong end of a telescope, no matter how hard she tries.
Dunham never goes for obvious jokes. Though she makes Aura a personable, intelligent character (for the most part), it's not like she's the ugly duckling, full of wit and wonder, just waiting for that magic moment to reveal her inner swan.
Indeed, that may be both the film's charm and its edge: that Aura is representative of all the only-average-looking young men and women, leaving college for the so-called real world, trying to figure out what do with the rest of their lives. But she quickly discovers that no one is going to offer her the chance to jump the line and enter the VIP room (where she'll find love, success and happiness) she's so sure exists because she's seen it in the movies so often.
Shot cleanly and concisely by Jody Lee Lipes, Tiny Furniture captures a moment in time: one person's failure to launch and what that feels like. The film isn't saying that she'll never launch -- just that not launching in the manner she expected can be devastating.
Suddenly, striking out with a guy she's interested in (Jed even gives her the cold shoulder while sleeping in the same bed with her) can be crushing. Scoring with Keith -- having sex with him in a corrugated metal culvert on a Brooklyn sidewalk -- feels less like an accomplishment than a tawdry story she'll laugh about at a later time. And the work she was so confident about at college suddenly looks small and insignificant. Can she come back from that?
There's little that's actorish or phony about this film, few pretensions to what Dunham is attempting. As a result, Tiny Furniture is a small, tightly focused movie that taps into something much bigger than you expect.
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