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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Tiny Furniture (2010)

* * *

Director: Lena Dunham
Starring: Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Grace Dunham, David Call, Alex Karpovsky

Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a film that sometimes seems better in theory than it actually is in practice. It veers wildly between narcissism and self-awareness and moves at an almost glacial pace, and yet on the occasions when it does spark to life, it edges towards brilliance. I was alternately annoyed, fascinated, and entertained by Tiny Furniture and ultimately ended up liking it much more than not. It’s a film that is definitely a work by someone still trying to find her voice but, despite that, it’s also a very confident piece and certainly shows the promise that Dunham has, arguably, now fulfilled through her tv series Girls.

Dunham stars as Aura, just graduated from university in Ohio and returning to her family’s home in New York in order to regroup before setting out on her own (or not, as the case may be). The family consists of her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), a successful photographer, and her younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), less than pleased that Aura has returned and reclaimed her bedroom, which Nadine has been using as her “special space.” With vague plans to get an apartment with a friend from university once she moves to New York, Aura makes a small move towards adulthood by getting a job as a restaurant hostess with the help of her childhood friend, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), whose flippant attitude towards work (“I wouldn’t get that excited about the paycheck,” she warns Aura. “It’s pretty disappointing; after a while, I just stopped picking mine up.”) neatly sums up the milieu in which both she and Aura were raised.

Much of the film is concerned with Aura’s potential relationships with two men: Jed (Alex Karpovsky), an “internet celebrity,” and Keith (David Call), a sous-chef at the restaurant where she works. Both are men who talk a good game and who attract her through their aloofness, but neither turns out to be as deep as the pretences they adopt, and both end up disappointing her. At the same time, however, Aura’s sense of self is so nebulously defined that it’s difficult to say what would satisfy her. She says that she wants to start life as an adult, that she wants to move out, and that she wants to become a successful artist (like Jed she is something of an internet celebrity thanks to some videos on YouTube), but she quickly retreats from anything that would necessitate being a responsible adult. She quits her job almost as soon as she gets it, she blows off the friend who’s moving to New York and comes up with a last minute story about how Siri needs her to stay at home a while longer, and she shows no ambition as an artist. She doesn’t really want to be an adult yet; she just wants sympathy and some acknowledgement that she’s “having a very, very hard time.”

Tiny Furniture gets off to a bit of a rough start, with clunky, overly expository dialogue that reveals that Aura has just graduated and been dumped, that Nadine isn’t thrilled that she’s come home, and that Aura is clinging to her identity as a “post-grad” even though that seems to mean having virtually no identity at all. She’s a bit insufferable because she demands attention for the fact that she has nothing going on and is entirely aimless, but while the film is at times self-indulgent, I think that Dunham is very aware of how Aura comes off and is making a deliberate statement about how people of privilege classify crisis. Aura has just graduated and doesn’t know what to do with the rest of her life. This is a common problem, but few people have the luxury of just... hanging out until they figure out what they want to do. Aura can quit her job on a whim because it’s boring and she’s mad at Keith, and she can extend her adolescence indefinitely because she doesn’t have to worry about money and there’s no rush for her to become self-sufficient. She doesn’t have “real” problems, so she has to manufacture typical growing pains into something bigger than they actually are so that she doesn’t have to acknowledge that her life is starting to stagnate.

One of the reasons why I think Dunham is ultimately in on the joke about Aura is through her characterization of Charlotte, who manages to consistently call out the artificiality of the other characters even though she herself isn’t really much better than Aura – she’s just more aware that she’s awful (when questioned by Siri if her sense of entitlement is as big as Aura’s, Charlotte replies, “Oh believe me, mine is much worse.”). Kirke is in many ways the MVP of Tiny Furniture, bringing it crashing back to earth every time it threatens to float away into the vast recesses of pretension. I don’t think that Tiny Furniture is as deep as it wants to play at being, but all things considered I think it hits the target more often than it misses.

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