by Warren Curry
It’s been said that movies are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. On the other hand, Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” which won the narrative feature prize at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, is a film about an ordinary person in an ordinary situation. To some, that description will sound like a slight, but most of the recent indie films I’ve enjoyed have stressed naturalism over concept, and “Tiny Furniture” joins the list of better indies I’ve seen in the past few years.
It’s not entirely clear just how autobiographical “Tiny Furniture” is, however, Dunham uses her mother’s home as one of the film’s primary locations and also stars in the movie alongside her mom (Laurie Simmons) and sister (Grace Dunham). I suspect it’s probably not much of a stretch to assume this film is, in some part, a case of art mirroring reality. Dunham obviously knows the territory well, which is why her movie, even when the narrative seems like it’s stumbling off on inessential tangents, feels so authentic and intimate. There’s such an unassuming quality to the film that you don’t really absorb its effect until the very end, when, in hindsight, you realize how effectively all the pieces have fallen into place.
Dunham plays Aura (she also wrote the screenplay), a recent college graduate — with a film degree and a YouTube video to show for it — who just moved back home to New York City after her boyfriend dumped her. The plan is for Aura to live with her mother, a successful photographer, and younger sister temporarily before she finds an apartment with college roommate Frankie (Merrit Wever), who will soon be relocating to NYC. Much to her sister’s chagrin, Aura settles a little too comfortably into life back at home. Even when she takes a job as a restaurant hostess, at the suggestion of her abrasive childhood friend Charlotte (Laurie Simmons), it doesn’t appear she’s remotely close to moving out of the house.
Potential love interests take shape in the way of Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a fledging filmmaker visiting New York to take meetings, and Keith (David Call), a chef at the restaurant Aura has started working in. Aura’s interaction with these men is alternately joyous and uncomfortable. She invites Jed to stay at her mother’s house while her parent and sister are away, but any clumsy romantic overtures she makes are casually spurned. Things don’t go much better with Keith, though he seems the more attainable of the two despite the fact he’s already in a relationship.
“Tiny Furniture” has many things in common with Azazel Jacobs’ excellent 2008 film “Momma’s Man.” Not only do both movies deal with young adults who move back home while nervously wading into the waters of adulthood, but the filmmakers also cast family members in important roles and utilize their parents’ homes as locations. The films also create an unmistakably lived-in, tangible environment. Not much of anything in “Tiny Furniture” feels artificial.
Dunham certainly doesn’t give herself a glorified role. Aura is clearly reluctant to spread her wings and fly from the nest and her mounting insecurity betrays her immaturity. This confusion causes her to make unwise, sometimes desperate decisions — a 20-something with drama queen tendencies who only vaguely grasps the concept that the world doesn’t revolve around her. But instead of veering in a melodramatic direction, Dunham uses this material as the basis for an understated, well-balanced mix of comedy and drama. The filmmaker clearly isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself and she opens her character up in an endearing, if not always likeable, way. Every performance is believable, which is key to the film’s success.
The 24-year-old Dunham is on a roll, as the pilot she wrote, which Judd Apatow is executive producing, has been given the greenlight by HBO. “Tiny Furniture” displays a surprisingly assured artistic voice for someone so young. It’s a superb piece of work from an artist whose best efforts are still likely many years away. With “Tiny Furniture,” we may be witnessing the start of something special.
Tiny Furniture (USA/2010)
Director: Lena Dunham
Cast: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky, David Call, Merritt Wever
Not Rated, 98 minutes
(IFC Films; opens in New York City on November 12, 2010. Opens in Los Angeles on November 26, 2010)