Tiny Furniture takes its title from the props a successful artist uses in some of her work, but it also evocates a mood, a preoccupied search for meaning, or distraction, among minutiae, that informs the entire film. The Tribeca art-world setting of Lena Dunham’s film is insular and rarified—a place in which everyone is either an artist or a child of one, and day jobs, if they exist at all, can be discarded at the slightest whim. The children of the artists in the film, mostly in their early 20s, are old enough to know that they’re vaguely expected to be making something of themselves, but are clueless as to how to go about it, and so they nest in their parents’ enviably chic lofts and attend fashionably obscure gallery openings and talk coolly of their own inevitable artistic accomplishments. These folks are often unbearably smug, but you can see the terror below the hipster pretension.
Dunham knows the territory. Her family actually lives in the loft that serves as the setting for much of the film. Siri (Laurie Simmons), the photographer of the tiny furniture, is based on Simmons’s own life and career, and she’s also the filmmaker’s mother in real life. Dunham’s sister, Grace, also has a small but pivotal role as Nadine, who’s the sister of the protagonist Aura, the latter of whom is played by the filmmaker herself. The hall-of-mirrors self-reflexivity is endless and occasionally exhausting, yet it serves a purpose beyond shrewdness and necessity. The stunt casting is appropriate to the concept-art dimension that the characters of Tiny Furniture inhabit, as everything, in this Internet age of endless and often instantly disposable self-expression, can be art, and the blurrier the lines between truth and fiction the better. (Dunham even made a prior film called Creative Nonfiction.)
Tiny Furniture is an unusually ambitious film about the traditional young-adult concern of finding oneself. On the surface, the film is about Aura’s post-graduate malaise (her words) during the summer following her graduation from film school, but it’s really a comedy of dislocation. Aura feels estranged from Siri and Nadine, both of whom are confident successes who look nearly and eerily alike with their tall frames and round little black glasses. Aura is literally the squishiest member of her family: chubby, less glamorous, and desperately eager to please her mother and sister as well as the parade of pretentious frauds she befriends out of loneliness, desire and simple boredom.
The film has been criticized as narcissistic, which is inevitable given its subject matter and back story, but Dunham maintains a skepticism of her roots that’s alternately bracing and cruel (it’s this element that’s probably earned her premature comparisons to Woody Allen). Tiny Furniture isn’t a veiled celebration of the artiste wanderer in the tradition of a number of mumblecore films, but an attempted cultural satire that’s meant to gradually deepen, by the end, into a story of domestic alienation that’s meant, perhaps, as an expression of empathy for the prevailing mindset that informs the culture being satirized.
Dunham’s satire, which mostly involves characters endlessly dropping references to not-quite-mainstream artists in an attempt to appear in-the-know, is amusing but ultimately limited, and one can’t quite shake the idea that Dunham is a little overly eager to flout her own erudition. For every quip that cuts to the heart of an insular generation schooled on the net (“He’s kind of a celebrity on YouTube”), there’s another that’s merely a symptom of the same, such as an ostentatious Woody Allen reference. Yet Dunham often pulls off something beautiful just when you think you’ve had it with her, such as a lyrical, poignant recreation of the iconic Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover.
Tiny Furniture is more successful and disciplined when telling the story of the seemingly only vaguely fictional Dunham family. Only 22 years old when this film was shot, Dunham already shows considerable skill for eliciting performance, for camera placement that comments upon the psychological relationships of those in the frame, for dialogue that casually registers on several levels, as well as for symbolism, as she allows two potentially contrived conceits to gradually merge and pay off beautifully in a final scene that’s emotionally devastating in its offhandedness.
There’s room for growth, as there almost always is with a debuting artist of any kind. Dunham does already remind one of Woody Allen in one fashion, and it’s not complimentary: Her self-loathing is so pronounced it can throw one out of Tiny Furniture. Dunham the director often shoots Dunham the actress in a way that would be unforgiveable if the director was a different person, as merciless points are often scored on the actress’s flabby tummy, thighs, and butt, particularly in an unnecessarily mean-spirited shot of a post-coital shower. While it’s obvious that the filmmaker is trying to avoid holding herself above the confusion, doubt, and tormented love she feels for her other subjects, she loses clarity somewhere along the way, which is often a hazard of intensely autobiographical material. But these issues also point to a braveness and integrity, mixed with admitted self-aggrandizement that could lead to a rewarding artistic maturity. Tiny Furniture is remarkably assured and uneven at once, an emotionally unresolved debut that’s legitimately hard to shake.
Tiny Furniture has been shot in a spare, clinical style that subtly establishes the isolation and alienation of the characters. The reds, blues, and whites are hard and pristine, the grays a little murky, with the blocking pointedly suggesting that all the characters are, themselves, pieces in a larger, more elaborate piece of concept art—which they are. The Criterion transfer is characteristically excellent, as the film looks vastly superior to the admittedly dodgy print I saw in the theater. The images pop without losing the NYC grit that's integral to the last act of the film, and there's no evidence of any problems such as haloing or edge enhancement. The dialogue and the lovely score have been mixed in proper relationship with all other diegetic and non-diegetic sound effects.
There's a variety of diverse extras that illuminate the making of Tiny Furniture while avoiding the clichéd making-of routine. The 30-minute conversation between Lena Dunham and filmmaker Nora Ephron opens as a meeting of a mutual admiration society, but soon evolves into a discussion that includes the influence Woody Allen has had on their work; they also share a few interesting sentiments on the often tedious and condescending topic of female directors in Hollywood. (Ephron says that, as someone who hates L.A., she wanted to simply be labeled as a New York filmmaker.) The interview with filmmaker/critic Paul Schrader is concerned with defending the film against its detractors; he asserts that those who responded to the film harshly did so out of envy. While I partially agree, I had hoped that Schrader, an excellent critic, would go a little deeper, though the beautifully written essay by Phillip Lopate compensates to a degree.
The most interesting extra though is the inclusion of a number of the films Dunham made in college. The four shorts are succinct, mostly amusing sketches that explore the sexual frustration and personal insecurity that would further crystallize in Tiny Furniture. Creative Nonfiction, billed as Dunham's first film, is a nearly feature-length exercise in which Dunham appears as a character, quite similar to Aura, who allows a male friend she digs to stay over in her room for a few days with the kind of sadly realistic results that will be familiar to fans. All of these films are extremely rough aesthetically, lacking the formal polish that Dunham would go on to display, but they're also moving and admirably raw, indicative of a blossoming talent.
Fans of this unusually ambitious, moving, mixed-up post-college malaise film will be very pleased with this superb transfer.