Thursday, 23 February 2012
Starring: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirk, Alex Karpovsky, David Call
By Alan Bacchus
Tiny Furniture is a remarkable little quirky gem from a then 24-year-old wunderkind of sorts. This is Lena Dunham, a New Yorker who, even before turning 25, established a unique voice in cinema by satirizing the New York Art Brat scene. Tiny Furniture wasn’t even her first feature film. Before that she honed her self-referential life story into a smaller film, Creative Nonfiction, and two web series, Tight Shots (2007) and Delusional Downtown Divas (2008), as well as a number of shorts.
The themes, characters and situations of her previous work merge like those of a young Quentin Tarantino into her breakthrough film, Tiny Furniture, which famously won the SXSW Narrative Feature Film Award in 2010. This led to her soon-to-premiere Judd Apatow-produced HBO series, Girls.
Lena courageously puts a thinly disguised version of herself onto the screen as Aura, a college film school grad returning home to Manhattan to live with her mother and hopefully figure out what to do with her life. The imposing figure of her immensely successful mother, who owns an impressive studio loft and makes a living creating art from photographing ‘tiny furniture’, is a passive burden on Aura. Same with her younger sister, who isn’t out of high school but has achieved more as an artist than anything Aura has done. Add to her woes being dumped by her boyfriend and the presence of her former childhood friend, Charlotte, an over-privileged brat.
For most of the picture we see Aura moping around in unglamorous bedroom attire with no makeup and her hair unconditioned in a perpetual bed head. It’s a far cry from the meticulously coifed hipsters she hangs out with. Despite her appearance, Aura is bubbly, effervescent and optimistic on the outside. She takes a job as a hostess at a local restaurant and is sort of dating a couch-surfing fellow art brat, Jed. In fact, most of the film is conflict-free, as we follow Aura around in her post-grad malaise, which doesn’t really seem to concern her.
The shoe drops when her mother’s confrontation about Jed sparks the anger-fueled shouting match of frustration we’ve been expecting to see. In order to reconcile her angst, Aura engages in a mild sexual bender with a restaurant colleague and eventually confesses her insecurities to her mother.
Ms. Dunham would probably be the first to admit the problems of her character are tepid at best, certainly not melodramatic – an understated emotional journey. But it’s Dunham’s remarkably addictive character and performance that has us glued to the screen. There seems to be a conscious effort for Dunham to expose the most unglamorous parts of her body, often walking around the house in a long t-shirt with no pants, glorifying her pear-shaped body. Dunham’s comfort with her own body is not lost on us, as it conforms to the honesty she puts into her character. The hipster art world environment also threatens to make us all feel inferior, and yet Aura is someone we’d actually want to be friends with. She’s an unpretentious, down-to-earth woman with the same struggles of insecurity as the rest of us.
There’s also Dunham's superb eye for composition and unique mise-en-scene. She maximizes the small spaces of her mother’s loft as well as the real Manhattan cafes, bars and streets in and on which she films. As such, Tiny Furniture is stylized but real and honest – qualities that are rare for such a young filmmaker.
Tiny Furniture is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.