“Tiny Furniture” wins us over in the way that only the best movies manage to do. This is due to its writer/director/star, Lena Dunham, who seems to quite literally have been born to be in front of a camera. She is not a conventional Hollywood beauty but she is certainly an attractive young woman nonetheless. This is a dichotomy that Dunham embraces. She has no qualms about her curves. In fact, at every opportunity, she relishes displaying her body. This is about more than vanity or sexuality. This is about a passion to make oneself seen and to comment on what is seen. Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times about Dunham’s goal to make the viewer see the real Dunham. Her character’s name, “Aura,” Dargis concludes, is a reference to a famous essay on art by Walter Benjamin discussing the disconnect between the original work of art’s aura and its reproduction. Only in cinema, by its very nature, he states, does the viewer have the opportunity to see a mass-produced work of art, the movie, on a deeper level. From viewing the bonus features on the DVD, however, Dunham makes it sound like she came up with her character’s name at random but that could be playing to the crowd.
Lofty sentiments or not, an overriding characteristic about “Tiny Furniture” and Lena Dunham is the need to be seen/known. This is a big part of what “coming-of-age” means. What we have is the main character as a force of nature determined to make herself understood. And what’s so funny here is that this indomitable force seems rather slow. But Dunham, as “Aura,” the college grad retreating back home, is also as sharp as a tack. In much the same way as Woody Allen plays himself in some of his best movies, you root for the underdog while sensing that the underdog is also very much in control. And that control is also thanks, in no small part, to the cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes (“The Whitest Kids U’ Know” and “Man vs. Wild”). Jody has a magical way with composition and detail from a well-timed close-up of the pet cat to making sense of the family loft’s incredible space . Again, in Dargis’s review, to complete her argument, she believes the movie was deliberately badly lit to run counter with convention but that doesn’t seem to be the case. On the contrary, it is the cinematography that goes far to raise the level of excellence and, indeed, makes the movie a visual pleasure.
Anyhow, to be young and ambitious, especially in a euphoric and unformed way, and in New York City, is an intoxicating state to be in, don’t you think? Interestingly enough, Dunham seems to play down the fact she is in Manhattan and allows the city to speak for itself. And it does by breathing through every frame of this movie. We begin from the inside as Dunham enters her family’s vast TriBeCa loft. All in white, stripped down to an endless series of cabinets, it is quite an imposing modish scene. We follow Dunham as she walks down a staircase to the pristine studio/laboratory of her mother, a professional artist. There she finds her mom in the middle of photographing her teen sister for the latest in the “tiny furniture” series. To add to the layers of complexity, and academic speculations, Dunham’s mother is played by her real mother, the artist, Laurie Simmons and Dunham’s sister is her real sister, Grace. And the TriBeCa loft is played by the real loft that the Dunhams call home.
As the sister makes clear, Aura is not completely welcome. The whole apartment has adjusted to her absence. Aura’s room is now her sister’s “special place.” Her mother, constantly reviewing jpegs with her assistant, is lost in her work. But, quite adept at multi-tasking, she keeps throwing nurturing comments for Aura to catch. She loves Aura without question. This, Aura uses to her advantage. It’s not lost on her that she has access to an amazing apartment. All she has to do is wait. It won’t be long before we have one goofy kid home alone in a luxury apartment. Dunham can now turn that cliché on its ear—or at least give it a good tug.
Aura quickly stumbles upon re-establishing herself. At a party, the hostess (Amy Seimetz) greets her with an annoyingly arcane, “Hubba hubba!” There is a strained and urgent look to her as they rush into a discussion of what is or who is currently hot. They zero in on Jed (Alex Karpovsky, a mumblecore favorite), who is at the party, and has a cult following on YouTube as the “Nietzchean Cowboy” where he does spoken word riffs on the German philosopher while riding a rocking horse. Aura and Jed get to talk. Then Aura bumps into a childhood pal, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a bubbly and delightful girl with a strange British accent. And, finally, before she leaves, Aura seals the deal by inviting herself to be Jed’s guide during his brief visit to New York. The guy is there to try to parlay his YouTube fame with Comedy Central and he’s broke. How can he refuse?
Nothing says “coming-of-age” more than a boy and a girl thrown in together by circumstance. When Jed and Aura meet up the following evening for what seems like sort of a date, Jed chimes in that he just had a conversation with his local ATM and it told him to go fuck himself. Aura is not discouraged. No, instead she rewards Jed with an offer to crash at her home for the next week while her family is away. Jed, no fool, asks if that is a genuine offer. It is Dunham’s writing, the specificity of Jed and Aura, that is priceless and makes this movie a glowing tribute to coming-of-age movies which, oddly enough perhaps, brings to mind John Hughes. Add another love interest, Keith (David Call), another loyal pal, Frankie (Merritt Weaver), and it’s sort of like the cast of “The Breakfast Club,” a few years older, have been unleashed upon the Big Apple.
“Tiny Furniture” packs a lot of extras on its DVD/Blu-ray release. You can feel like you’ve gone off to Oberlin College with Dunham as you view what appears to be all her significant student films. Included is the now infamous, “The Fountain,” a YouTube sensation with over a million hits, where Dunham strips down to a bikini and uses one of the campus fountains to bathe and brush her teeth.
The best bonus feature is a genuine and eloquent set of observations by the well-regarded writer/director/critic, Paul Schrader. He cuts to the chase and addresses the backlash to “Tiny Furniture.” If you happen to be someone trying to break into the business, you may have a problem totally liking the movie. It comes down to envy. Why should Lena Dunham get to be the darling of SXSW? Of the thousands of movies about young people finding their way in life, why does hers stand out? How does she merit a gig on HBO? The resentment is huge but then you have the judge the movie on its own terms and, it turns out, it is good, even great.
Schrader lists some all-time sleepers, “Who’s That Knocking,” “She’s Gotta Have It,” and “Take The Money And Run.” All hated for their seemingly overnight success.
He then talks about the genre of “mumblecore,” with its lack of structure, the camera aimlessly following the actors. He cites movies like “Funny, Ha Ha,” which Dunham admits to be inspired by. However, “Tiny Furniture,” Schrader points out, pretends to be mumblecore but, in reality, is tightly scripted and structured. In the end, it’s a fine piece of work, so the haters need to get over it.
Have you seen “Tiny Furniture” yet? Don’t be left out.