Best of the fest! Back to back screenings late into Saturday night restores this reviewer's faith in American indies and reaffirms the brilliance of Turkish-German director Fatih Akin at the Eighth Annual Independent Film Festival of Boston.
Tiny FurnitureDirector: Lena Dunham
Cast: Lena Dunham, Grace Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Alex Karpovsky, David Call, Jemima Kirke
Studio: Tiny Ponies, IFC
Screened Saturday 24 April
Lena Dunham’s hyphenate debut Tiny Furniture is somewhat of a tiny miracle, a film that should in no way succeed at all, but does so, with so much intelligence, humor and charm, that it made me wonder if Dunham had somehow tricked us into thinking this was her first full feature, and that we were watching the work of a seasoned pro. It’s the raw diamond in the rough that comes along every so often and rekindles my hope for the future of young independent film in America.
Dunham directs herself from a mostly autobiographical script about a young college grad, Aura, who moves back home with her artist mother and precocious younger sister after being dumped by her boyfriend. Envisioning grand plans of getting her own apartment with a friend and making it big in New York City, she quickly regresses and retreats to a lazy life of dead-end restaurant work and poor choice in men. She lolls about in a ratty t-shirt and her underwear most of the day, oversleeping and whining relentlessly about her horrible lot in life. She is going nowhere fast and shows no real sign of caring.
If this sounds insufferable, like the template of so many navel gazing indies made by the same cohort of overeducated 20-something, well… yes and no. Superficially, Tiny Furniture plays out like a distaff version of the loosely grouped “mumblecore” (sorry, I hate it too, but no other term work) spearhead by Andrew Bujalski and mostly made up of male directors and male protagonists. But the gender switch isn’t what (or just) sets Dunham’s film apart.
I don’t know, but there’s some sort of bravery to her performance. Awkward, frumpy, and prone to epic bouts of self-pity, Aura (and, I guess, Lena herself) should be thoroughly unappealing. And yet, there’s a certain allure to her, a glint of fearlessness in the face of her own ridiculousness that is… well, kind of sexy. She has a way of mining her insecurities for humor and wisdom that belies her 24 years. And her relationships and interactions with her bohemian artist mother and obnoxious know-it-all sister show a depth of feeling and understanding that is rare for anyone, let alone someone just out of film school herself (both Dunham and her character).
And yet Aura is still prone to making the same stupid mistakes of youth – putting out potentially humiliating videos of herself on YouTube for the sake of “performance art”; having unapologetic (and unprotected) sex with a skeevy sous-chef in a… well, I won’t tell you where (It’s one of the most shocking and funniest moments I’ve seen in a film lately, one that made me actually gasp and laugh with disgust and glee); allowing another romantic interest to shack up and mooch of her for a week while her mother and sister visit colleges. She’s a fuck-up, but there’s never a whiff of desperation or sadness about her.
Never overrun by the self-conscious quirk or straining obnoxious affectation of some of her peers’ films, Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a modest, honest confessional that finds joy and poignancy in the tiny, awkward, stupid things in life, and might be the sign of the emergence of a giant talent.
Director: Fatih Akin
Studio: Corazon International, Pyramide, Dorje Film
Cast: Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Birol Unel, Anna Bederke, Pheline Roggan
Screened Saturday 24 April
Coming off directing two of the most emotionally devastating and formally rigorous films in recent memory (the near masterpiece The Edge of Heaven, and the absolute masterpiece Head-On), you can forgive the prodigiously talented Turkish-German director Fatih Akin for wanting to ratchet the intensity down a notch or two (or a hundred) and have some fun. Which is exactly what he does with his latest offering, Soul Kitchen, a breezy comedy that manages to be a complete 180 from his previous films, while still displaying the same signature style and energy that put Akin on the map as one of Europe’s best young directors.
Zino is a young German hipster of Greek descent, trying desperately to keep his ramshackle warehouse restaurant afloat, keep his recently paroled brother on the right side of the law, and keep his girlfriend from leaving him for a new job in China. He has mounting trouble with all three, and the endless string of screw-ups and disasters revolving around his life and the restaurant keep the film humming along at an agreeable pace. Though some fairly unpleasant (and predictable) misfortunate befall Zinos along the way (loses his girlfriend, loses his brother, loses his restaurant), the film is too good natured and light to court the tragedy that Akin evoked in his previous films. All is right in the end, though not necessarily in the way you’d expect.
Soul Kitchen feels weightless at times, but its screwball comic sheen does cover a more serious interior if you want to dig a little bit. Akin’s focus on the immigrant/expatriate experience in Germany (here, Greek instead of his usual focus on Turkish immigrants) is, as always, never far from his mind, nor is his concern with issues of family, both biological and “adopted”. Boasting a great old school soul and R&B soundtrack and memorable (and very funny) performances by the leads and incidental quirky characters, Soul Kitchen was the most fun I had at the festival this year, the definite highlight among a string of good to near great films.