Twenty-two year old Aura has just come home from college in Ohio with a degree in film theory and no idea what to do with herself. “I’m in a post-graduate delirium,” she says. Tiny Furniture plays like a post-graduate, post-The Graduate–quarter-life crises of Woody Allen if Woody Allen was a twenty-two year old girl.
Lena Dunham, 24, wrote, directed and stars as Aura in this semi-autobiographical work. Funny, disarming, and deeply resonant, Tiny Furniture marks the arrival of a major filmmaking talent. Dunham gives such a natural and engrossing lead performance, it is almost startling to remember she directed herself. Like Aura, Dunham attended a liberal arts college, makes YouTube videos, and has an over-achieving sister and a successful artist mother, who actually plays Aura’s sister and mother in the film. Dunham’s willingness to expose herself, physically and emotionally, is both shocking and endearing, without ever coming across as self-aggrandizing.
Like most people her age, Aura is just trying to get by without committing too strongly to any one direction. It’s a confusing path. Her mother (Laurie Simmons) encourages her to explore but condemns Aura for invading her space and breaking her rules. She experiments with two potential boyfriends: Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a Seinfeldian YouTube sensation in New York pitching a television pilot, and Keith (David Call), the mustachioed, fedora-wearing chef at the restaurant where Aura gets a job as a hostess. Also in the mix is Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), an old childhood friend whose pastimes include wine, pills and being pretentious and Aura’s younger sister Nadine (Grace Dunham), who’s fed up with Aura’s immaturity and just wishes she’d leave. The authenticity of speech and action between the character keeps them from becoming too grating, although Dunham never eschews the fact that we’re dealing with people in their twenties and people in their twenties are, almost by definition, needy, narcissistic assholes.
Also tempering the potentially irksome indie sensibilities of the film’s rich and artsy hipsters is an usually composed visual style. Dunham and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes excel at capturing real world locations—Aura’s TriBeCa loft, the café where she works, New York City streets—with a formalism and economy unusual for a small film. Dunham displays admirable confidence as a director, favoring long takes and few set-ups, allowing scenes to play out naturally. Tiny Furniture features none of the grainy digital footage or shaky handheld camerawork that plagues similar films searching to capture a “realist” aesthetic. Shots are expansive and composed, well lit and brightly colored. Dunham exhibits a deft hand in capturing her characters and the world they inhabit.
Although very funny, Tiny Furniture mines the deeply personal identity crises facing many post-college young people. Passing references to a poor economy, however, aren’t as important as the more universal feeling of not belonging. Aura wants to be so close, both physically and emotionally, with her mother and sister, and when they leave to look at colleges for Nadine, she replaces them with Jed and Charlotte. Aura discovers, as many young people do, upon returning to your home after college, that the space is no longer her own, as if some great rift has occurred. The imperceptible but irrevocable passage of time has rendered the formally familiar distant and strange. Dunham emphasizes this strangeness by setting the action in a post-modern nightmare of an all-white loft where Aura’s mother repeatedly tells her to fetch something from “the white cabinet” only to face an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling identical white cabinets. The title Tiny Furniture comes from the photographs of doll furniture Aura’s mother takes. Dunham smartly contrasts her own pear-shaped body with her mother’s miniature art. In one scene in her mother’s studio, Aura sits on her lap and embraces her. “Am I crushing you?” she asks. Self-aware and satirical but never bleak, Tiny Furniture expertly captures how utterly uncomfortable it is to be twenty-two and not know what you will do, how you will do it, or who you will be.
Screening before Tiny Furniture was a disappointing short film called Quality Time, starring Jason Patric as a frustrated father of four trying to connect with his kids. The father sets out one morning to drive three of his children to the school bus. He gets up early, sits them down for breakfast, and attempts to chat. All the kids are unappreciative as the dad grows increasingly incensed that his goodwill goes unnoticed, both his offspring and by a universe that seems determined to foil him. The screenplay from writer/director James Redford is a variation on the basic ‘One Bad Day’ plotline that crops up in every Intro to Screenwriting course. Worse still, Redford has no feel for pacing the film’s nine minutes to capture the script’s comedic beats. Handheld camerawork is an ill-advised choice, lending an unfocused shoddiness to the visual style. After a series of obstacles/gags that run overly long (he can’t find his car keys, his son forgets his shoes), the film ends on an obvious ironic joke–it’s Columbus Day and there is no school. It’s the kind of groaner ending these types of ‘everything goes wrong’ screenplays seem to necessarily engender.
Tiny Furniture and Quality Time were screened on October 17, 2010 at the Anaheim International Film Festival. For more information, visit www.anaheimfilm.org. For more information on the film Tiny Furniture, please visit its website here.