Winner of last spring’s SXSW festival and current indie darling, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a comedy of youthful confusion that gets its kick not only for evoking a world of unromantic hookups, casual BJs, and iPhone porn, but for satirizing New York’s bourgeois bohemia.
Newly graduated with a degree in film from an artsy Midwestern college, Aura and her pet hamster arrive at mother Siri’s spacious, immaculate white-on-white Tribeca loft. “Honey, I’m home,” the returning daughter sings out, signaling the movie’s fondly ironic take on sitcom convention. Mom, a photography-artist (as opposed to a photographer), is engrossed in a shoot involving kid sister Nadine, and barely notices Aura’s reappearance—precipitating the movie’s first round of sibling bitchiness.
That the coolly self-possessed Siri is played by Dunham’s mother and the loft’s owner, noted photo-artist Laurie Simmons (the movie’s title refers to her props); Nadine by her actual sister, Grace Dunham (who, like her character, did actually win the “biggest high school award for poetry in the United States”); and Aura by the filmmaker herself pushes Tiny Furniture even further into psychodrama than such boho-autobiographical precursors as Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and Aza Jacobs’s Momma’s Man.
Although Dunham was able to make a feature starring herself, Creative Nonfiction, when she was just an Oberlin undergrad, her alter ego, Aura, is presented as a loser. Her main artistic accomplishment is a YouTube video, in which, far from svelte, she prances around the college quad in a bikini. Indeed, Aura has no particular postgraduate ambitions and, back home, reconnects with a dissolute and hilariously supercilious childhood friend, Charlotte (actual childhood friend, Jemima Kirke), while studying for the role of art-world ingénue by reading her mother’s ’70s journals. (These may or may not be real: Did Laurie Simmons—not to be confused with that other ’70s-art-world Laurie—really think of herself as “Doris Day in Soho”?)
Neither Siri nor her words are any help. “Your mom is too successful not to be an asshole,” is Charlotte’s sage analysis. Charlotte gets Aura a dead-end job as the hostess in a local restaurant, while Aura gets herself involved with a ripe pair of casually exploitative jerks: Jed (Alex Karpovsky, who played a less offensive boyfriend in Beeswax) is a successful YouTube performance artist never seen without his copy of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers who is crashing in the “hell of Bushwick” while looking for a TV deal, and Keith (David Call) is the restaurant’s philandering chef. But the men in Aura’s life are far less formidable than the women.
To the degree that it has a narrative, Tiny Furniture proceeds from one Aura-humiliation to the next. The funniest is the teenage party Nadine opportunistically throws in the loft, which, with Charlotte vamping the boys and Aura parading around in her pajamas, accelerates into one more screaming sisterly fight. Programmatically blurring the line between performance art and situation comedy, Tiny Furniture includes a shout-out to Seinfeld (and has been endorsed by Judd Apatow). For all its one-liners, the movie isn’t exactly funny-ha-ha, although its tone is consistently droll and, save for the final ba-da-boom, the comic timing works. The female performances in particular are emphasized by DP Jody Lee Lipes’s artfully static compositions—particularly in the escalating emotional arguments between Aura and her mother, or, should we say, Dunham and her mother?
Where the aggressively childish Dunham appears at once pathetic and shrill, the confidently grown-up Simmons alternates between bland disinterest and prissy disapproval. It would be hard to miss her resemblance to her equally calm, serious-looking, and willowy younger daughter, and the authorial payback is evident. “Did you ever have a job that wasn’t taking pictures of little tiny crap?” Aura asks. Simmons’s art explicitly drew on the mise-en-scène of her own suburban childhood, but Dunham has done Mom one better.
It’s been noted that Dunham, who is no one’s idea of a Barbie and generally dresses (or undresses) to accentuate her frumpiness, has a remarkable absence of vanity—or is it a more highly evolved form of narcissism? The movie’s title may refer to Mom’s immaculate dollhouse world, but the world itself is Aura’s. There’s a built-in wink: As convincingly hapless as Aura appears, Dunham never lets you forget that she “grew up” to direct this film.