Directed by: Lena Dunham
Written by: Lena Dunham (screenplay)
Starring: Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Grace Dunham and Laurie Simmons
Lena Dunham is an expert when it comes to enhancing lives that would normally be lived in miniature. In her excellent feature debut, Tiny Furniture, Dunham magnifies the life of Aura, a recent college graduate who moves back home and seems stuck in neutral. In addition to writing and directing this film, Lena also plays the title character and has her actual mother and sister star as fictional versions of her mother and sister. Tiny Furniture is the definition of an independent film, and its formal sophistication and biting wit show up lesser attempts like Paranormal Activity.
Dunham landed a gig on HBO with the Judd Apatow-produced Girls in part because of Tiny Furniture. The premise of that show is largely the same as this debut film on a larger scale. Dunham plays a young woman struggling professionally, financially and sexually. She does this quite well, reciting her own dialogue with an off-beat delivery that is a hybrid of a mumblecore character and actual human being.
Thankfully, Dunham also knows how to compose a shot as well as a sentence. Though it’s clear that Tiny Furniture was made on a bare bones budget (some of the side characters are the wrong kind of awkward on camera), it is a very aesthetically pleasing film to look at. This is mostly because the upper class New York lifestyle that Aura’s mother (Laurie Simmons) and sister (Grace Dunham) inhabit is posh to begin with.
Many of the early shots divide the frame into geometrically pleasing arrangements, often with Aura on one half and her mother and/or sister on the other. The best of these comes early on when Aura leans against a wall that divides her from her sister doing sit-ups. She rises up into and down out of the shot as Aura’s flabby figure stays stationary. Though they are feet away, the lighting and decoration of the two rooms makes them look worlds apart.
In a cinematic world where female characters are often reduced to props or exist to admire the humor or gravitas of their male counterparts, Tiny Furniture is a feminist rallying cry. Dunham does not shy away from her body, nor does she shy away from laughing at herself. She is a master of re-appropriating personal pain to extremely funny comedic ends. Much of this film focuses on her relationship with her old childhood friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke).
Charlotte is a typical “free spirit” but with a little bit more of an edge. Her rambunctious charisma and overt sexuality are a perfect foil to Aura’s quiet insecurity. Kirke and Dunham’s different comedic styles also mesh very well together.
Though the principle characters are all women, Tiny Furniture is not without its share of men. Aura lives a life of awkward sexual encounters, though none in this movie can touch the painful sex scenes in the first few episodes of Girls. That show is a perfect example of the 30 minute comedy, and Tiny Furniture of the modern 90ish minute film comedy. It navigates relatively safe terrain in exceedingly risky and fresh ways, making its occasional lack of polish the last thing that comes to mind.
Relationship comedies have become as stale and predictable as most modern horror films. Tiny Furniture has moments more horrific than many slashers, like when Aura and the chef from the restaurant she plays hostess at have sex in a discarded metal tube in an alley. Dunham positions the camera so that we see her face, but instead of the typical pleasure shot it’s one of disgust and shame. This moment and the rest of the film’s conclusion establishes it as a true anti-romantic comedy, an answer to the faux negative trappings of movies like (500) Days of Summer. Tiny Furniture ends without focusing on romantic relationships at all; its charming yet irritating protagonist has many other things troubling her. It is because of how true Aura’s angst rings that the false utopian vision of Tiny Furniture resonates.