Tiny Furniture

By Michael T. Dennis

“Tiny Furniture” is an ambitious, but fatally flawed, attempt to capture a significant moment in the lives of young people. Its examination of the post-college condition and the delayed onset of adulthood is authentic and engaging but the protagonist, 22-year old Aura, is cast as too much of a victim for us to truly appreciate what she's going through.
The film is a authored by a new young talent; Lena Dunham serves as writer and director while also playing Aura in a semi-autobiographical role. “Tiny Furniture” also stars Dunham's own mother and sister as Aura's distant mother Siri and precocious younger sister Nadine. It was shot mainly in Dunham's mother's home, an expansive, modern (read: cold) Manhattan loft and studio space.
The authentic setting and players gives way to a story that's also easy to locate in reality. Aura returns home after graduation to discover a world that's been carrying on fine without her. TriBeCa hasn't changed, which is to say it's still full of haughty restaurants, pretentious galleries, and opportunistic friends, with sincerity in short supply.
Aura's fresh film degree doesn't mean much, especially given her lack of motivation and devotion to her craft. Instead of a driven artist, Aura acts more like a teenage slacker, sleeping late in her childhood bedroom and walking around the house in an unflattering pajama ensemble.
She has the barest shell of a social life, reconnecting with old friends who seem pleased to see her, if only because her presence boosts their party attendance. It's at home that the more severe problems materialize. Aura gets no sympathy from her mother, despite having just broken up with her college boyfriend. Seventeen-year old Nadine is the new star of the household, working with Siri on her photographs and laughing her way through what, for Aura, was probably an awkward, insecure adolescence.
Instead of embracing the future, Aura decides to take some time to “figure things out.” This entails getting an easy, low-paying job at a restaurant, spending time with aloof men whose shortcomings are glaring even at first sight, and ignoring voicemails from her best college friend who's on her way to New York with an optimism that Aura lacks completely.
Much of “Tiny Furniture” follows Aura's misadventures including a one-sided romance with a bohemian drifter, a gallery show that's far from career-defining, and one of the most awkward, sad on-screen sexual encounters in recent memory.
As things go from bad to worse, it's impossible to separate the legitimate turns of poor fortune to the problems Aura brings upon herself. We see her quietly going through the motions of daily life, building up frustration that she lets out in a series of hysterical confrontations with her mother and sister.
True, Aura doesn't get the kind of support that a stable family provides, but it appears as though she's never had a stable family in her life, so why would she expect one to suddenly materialize? The same holds true of friends she's neglected who fail to provide the shoulder to cry on she might need, but understandably so.
Aura wants the world to accommodate her, which makes her a difficult character to like. But again and again, viewers are asked to feel sympathy and identify with this selfish image of disillusioned youth. All of this points to a very real phenomenon, with members of Generation Y coming into personal and financial independence late in life. “Tiny Furniture” is caught between making excuses and satirizing the plight of young adults like Aura.
With a clearer vision, Dunham could have made an excellent film. Individual elements are strong and easy to admire despite being put to such unsatisfying uses. The trio of leads squabble and scream like only a family can, and each woman delivers a pitch-perfect performance. Many scenes were shot in just one take, which accounts for the immediacy and energy of the most emotional sequences.
Elsewhere “Tiny Furniture” is a good-looking film, stylish and understated. This fact becomes more impressive after learning that it was filmed entirely with a Canon 7D: a $1,500 digital camera with a video mode that a child could probably figure out how to use, but that Dunham and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes employ with great skill.
The dialogue is crisp throughout, betraying yet another talent of Dunham's. In fact, it's difficult to say just what exactly is wrong with the film before stepping back and noticing the aforementioned contradictions and a gaping hole where the theme should be.
Aura is a young woman on a journey, but she doesn't learn anything. The film ends with a cryptic message that could indicate a glimmer of home, or a willingness to settle for a less-than-perfect future. In any case, it seems clear that it will be a while before Aura is able to put all the pieces together. Meanwhile “Tiny Furniture” may serve as a reminder that a film needs to be more than the sum of its parts.
Aura—Lena Dunham
Siri—Laurie Simmons
Nadine—Grace Dunham
Charlotte—Jemima Kirke
Jed—Alex Karpovsky
Frankie—Merritt Wever
Ashlynn—Amy Seimetz
Tiny Ponies
Distributed by IFC
Written and directed by Lena Dunham
Producers, Kyle Martin, Alicia Van Couvering, Alice Wang
Original Music, Teddy Blanks
Cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes
Editor, Lance Edmands
Art Directors, Jade Healy and Chris Trujillo