‘Tiny Furniture’ Is a Tiny Miracle

Lena Dunham’s hyphenate debut Tiny Furniture is somewhat of a tiny miracle, a film that by any metric should in no way succeed at all, but does so anyway, with so much intelligence, humor and charm that it made me wonder if Dunham had somehow tricked us into thinking this was her first feature (which maybe she kind of did – more on that below), 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 to rekindle 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 (each played by Dunham’s actual mother and 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 choices in men. She lolls about in a ratty t-shirt and underwear most of the day, oversleeping and whining relentlessly about her horrible lot in life. She’s 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-somethings, 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 works) movement spearhead by Andrew Bujalski (whom Dunham, in interviews, acknowledges as an obvious influence) 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 no small amount 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 noble and… 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, sympathy and understanding that is rare for anyone, let alone someone just out of film school herself (both Dunham and her character).

And yet despite her seeming maturity, Aura is still prone to making the same stupid mistakes that so many young people make – posting 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 from her for a week while her mother and sister visit colleges. She’s a fuck-up, sure, 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 moments in life, and points to the emergence of a potentially giant talent.

At least Judd Apatow and HBO seem to think so – or hope so. Based on the festival success of Tiny Furniture, Apatow has shepherded Dunham onto the small screen, where she will write, direct and star in her own series, Girls, this coming spring (which based on the trailer looks to be much a continuation of the style of this film). And Criterion, a generally reliable indicator of established or nascent genius, is already on board with Dunham, releasing Tiny Furniture in an impressively robust two disc set.

Now, I will leave it for you, viewer, to determine whether she is worthy of such accolades so early into a still unproven career, but I like that Criterion is lately turning its attention on emerging, and particularly female, talent (see also the home release of Andrea Arnold’s brilliant Fish Tank). In fact, the first feature included here, a short interview with writer-director Paul Schrader, addresses the issue of Dunham’s worthiness and credibility right out of the gate, serving almost as an apologia for Tiny Furniture’s release under the Criterion masthead. Schrader is much a fan, pointing out the obvious and mature formalism in the composition of Dunham’s shots, and even the rigor of her seemingly off the cuff, improv-esque dialogue. He also somewhat hilariously compares her to James Franco, in terms of both excess of talent and the ability to raise the jealous ire of their peers.

A lengthier interview, between Nora Ephron and Dunham herself, proves to be not as nearly as excellent as it could (or should) have been, if only because it’s a bit tangentially rambling. Dunham is obviously a little star-struck, and generally tends to reiterate how tremendous an influence Ephron has been on her, even as Ephron tries to move her onto other topics. It’s most interesting when they start talking about the idea of “women in film”, especially women writing and directing film, and how it’s both a privilege and a curse that it’s still perceived as a big deal to be recognized as a talented “woman” filmmaker (and how it’s almost a backhanded compliment – “Oh she’s such a talented director….for a woman”) rather than just as a filmmaker, period. Still, even for its lapsing into a mutual admiration society, it’s an enjoyable enough piece, and actually I kind of wish it had been longer, since it seems to cut off just when Ephron and Dunham are getting down to brass tacks and talking shop at a nuts and bolts level.

Disc Two is comprised of Dunham’s extant film work before Tiny Furniture. These include four short films which she did indeed post on Youtube (long since taken down), and her (technically) first feature, a 60 minute student film titled Creative Nonfiction. The short films almost do seem more like provocations/performance art, though they do evince the oddball humor and wry juxtapositions that Dunham would deploy later.

Creative Nonfiction is too amateurish and rough to call a full-fledged feature (which is why I’ll stand by Tiny Furniture being her actual debut), though the germs of her talent (and the influence of Bujalski) are fully apparent, if in chrysalis form. Shot on jerky 16mm, and mostly composed of static scenes of rambling conversations between college students (Dunham, and some girlfriends, and two male suitors), it seems at first like almost a parody of a “mumblecore” (last time I write that! Promise!) film. What does emerge in full force, from frame one, is Dunham as writer and actor. She is a natural in front of the camera, if for seeming so genuinely and endearingly awkward. Again, it’s that very fearlessness in the face of her own insecurity, hang-ups, and failures that wins the day—the awareness of them and her ability to transcend her own personal foibles and make them universal.

Creative Nonfiction’s necessity in her evolution towards the drastically more mature Tiny Furniture is obvious: she’s trying things on, seeing what works and what doesn’t—e.g. a meta-story, involving a teenage girl (also played by Dunham) kidnapped and harried by a lecherous high school teacher is too clever by half for what Dunham is trying to do and say, but is exactly the sort of “too clever” a college student would think was brilliant, even if it falls flat in execution. Fortunately, by the time she gets to making Tiny Furniture (not long after making her student film), she has already recognized what needs cutting and paring down and where her true strengths lie, which only augurs well for her continued work.

Girls debuts on HBO on 15 April, 2012 at 10:30PM.

RATING 8 / 10