I want to write a book… something about how hard and weird it is to be alive… even if you’re middle class and your parents are pretty loving.
—Nina (Zoe Kazan), Bored to Death
Tiny Furniture is a study of lost—and at times willingly sacrificed—momentum. It tells the story of Aura (played by director Lena Dunham), a recent college graduate who returns to the spacious chi-chi New York loft to live with her photographer mom, Siri (artist Laurie Simmons), and younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham). As her name suggests, Aura’s self-identity is not yet firm, and her future is in need of direction. As she meanders, so does Tiny Furniture... but it also vividly captures the emotional landscape of an increasingly familiar adult regression: the nostalgia for the comforts of the past, the sickening sweetness that comes with giving in to your longing, and the self-loathing and inertia that quickly follow. It is all quite funny.
In a January interview with The New York Times, Dunham says, “We’re calling it The Graduate for girls.” Like Benjamin Braddock, Aura is drifting, though her version of his swimming pool raft is a deflating Aerobed. In the movie’s best sight gag, she sits atop the mattress as it releases air, descending ever lower in the frame. Later, she will collapse face down on the floor, where she pitifully—and hilariously—moans, “I’m having a really hard time.”
Part of Aura’s problem is that she quickly realizes her degree in film studies qualifies her to do nothing of particular use or value to anyone. (Been there, sister!) She gets a job as a hostess at a nearby restaurant, where she arrives late, drops calls for reservations, and chats up the foxy but toxic Keith (David Call), a chef with a thing for anime porn. She also takes up again with her childhood best friend, the wild, gorgeous, and glamorous Charlotte (Jemima Kirke). Living alone (supported by her father), Charlotte easily coaxes Aura into smoking pot, taking pills, and being the canvas for her amateur tattoos.
Looking for something that may be love, Aura finds herself on a first date with Jed (Alex Karpovsky), an “Internet celebrity” who has dubbed himself The Nietzschean Cowboy. She invites him to stay at the loft, where he soon reveals himself to be a shameless freeloader. This turn indicates how the loft figures in Tiny Furniture, as a symbol of the permeable boundaries between Aura and other people. The layout of the apartment is itself porous, with bookshelves serving as walls and partitions dividing rooms rather than lockable doors. Dunham effectively uses her parents’ real life home to convey the lack of definition in Aura’s life and relationships. She also films a number of scenes in the bathroom, where characters carry on conversations during a shower or a soak in the tub, further breaking down the usual lines between private and public spheres.
The line is likewise blurred in the film when Aura digs out her mother’s diaries from the 1970s, first reading them aloud to herself, and then broadcasting them on YouTube. When Siri learns of her daughter’s transgression, she is curiously unruffled. (She is more upset that Jed has polished off all her wine and frozen dinners.) Even as Dunham makes herself emotionally and literally naked in Tiny Furniture, she remains different from her character. If Aura is lost, the 24-year-old writer-director shows here that has the self-awareness, visual style, and ambition to craft a wry yet sympathetic coming-of-age tale.
Sometimes this difference becomes metaphor. The title Tiny Furniture refers to the miniature dollhouse furniture that Siri uses in her pop art photos—as does Simmons, who is Dunham’s mother. While Dunham and Simmons appear to collaborate seamlessly here, the film is a fascinating examination of the often fraught relationship between mothers and their young adult daughters.
Uncertain about her future, Aura feels a strong pull toward Siri (more than once, she asks to join her mother in bed), but her struggle to separate is just as compelling. In one scene, she erupts into a full-fledged tantrum, screaming at Siri, “I really, really hate you!” Siri withstands Aura’s rage, but she is no pushover. There is a discomfiting authenticity to their ebbing and flowing anger, the shifts between outbursts of temper to gestures of forgiveness (or is it forgetting?). Eventually, they achieve a nearly hydraulic rhythm, as pent-up tensions are released, leading to a precarious equilibrium. When, in a late scene, an alarm clock is ticking away, we can only wonder whether they perceive in the sound the same significance we do.