If a filmmaker takes narcissism and self-consciousness as his or her subject, does that ensure that his or her work is automatically narcissistic and reflexive to the point of exasperation? In Tiny Furniture, writer-director Lena Dunham attempts to tap into the cultural moment by centering her film on an up-to-the-minute situation—the paucity of options facing today’s recent college grads—and by saturating the work with the cultural references by which her characters define themselves. In an upper-crust Manhattan marked by rampant narcissism, Aura (played by Dunham herself), an unemployed, post-grad returning to her artist mother’s Tribeca loft, may be the least self-absorbed character on display. But she (and the film) still wallows in her failed efforts to both return to the proverbial womb and take tentative steps into the outside world in a way that feels dispiritingly self-absorbed.
“I’m in a post-graduation malaise,” Aura tells her mother (Dunham’s real-life mom Laurie Simmons) at the beginning of the film, acknowledging the recent cultural phenomenon whose terminology legitimizes her decision to crash at home instead of embarking on a career. As she hides behind the semi-acceptable social role she’s carved out for herself, Aura briefly lands a job as a day hostess at a trendy restaurant; takes up with two men, one platonically, one strictly sexually; and copes with her Mom’s nastily deadpan put-downs and her overachieving younger sister’s partially veiled contempt. Through Aura’s awareness of her fulfillment of a cultural stereotype, Dunham acknowledges the difficulty of forging something in the way of an authentic self, a problem confounded by the prevalence of new media in the character’s lives. (Aura’s most public identity is that glimpsed through her art prank YouTube videos.) But only the film’s ending, a frank, close-up-heavy talk between mother and daughter, cuts through to the genuine hurt underlying the tired words we use to cope with the emotional dangers of contemporary life. And yet, even when we speak in clichés and conform to cultural roles, is there not more than a measure of truth in our feelings?
That’s a question that Dunham isn’t really interested in answering, despite the fact that everyone in Tiny Furniture, from Aura’s art-world lingo-spouting mother to a sleazy chef’s repeated catchphrases, hides behind words—no one more than the director herself. In perpetually snappy dialogue that often unfolds like a more upscale version of Juno-speak, the film’s characters communicate in the jargon of high/low contemporary culture (Aura’s sister calls her ex-boyfriend “a little speck of granola on a homemade yogurt”). Even a partial list of the film’s gallery of cultural artifacts gives an idea of the very specific mental milieu—seemingly cosmopolitan, but hopelessly insular—in which the film unfolds: American Psycho, the short stories of Woody Allen, tentacle rape, Klonopin, Rachel Maddow, mixing Jelly Belly flavors, Gilda Radner, photographs of miniature furniture, the Craig’s List murderer, group shows in Dumbo, Cormac McCarthy’s recent novels, Bushwick studio spaces…
But rather than explore the implications of the self-conscious life, in which cultural roles and products leave precious little room for an independently formed self, Dunham is more interested in indulging in the resultant verbal play for its own (dubious) pleasures. Everyone in her film is supposed to be educated and fully developed (culturally, if not emotionally), but the dialogue is surprisingly devoid of intellectual frisson or much in the way of interest to anyone except the character’s themselves. In one scene, Aura tells a date she doesn’t really like “foreign films,” an admission, especially coming from a film studies major, that gets at the cultural insularity of both the character and the movie. The line is spoken by the director through her role as Aura and, while we can’t take it as representing her authorial viewpoint, it nonetheless reinforces the feeling that Dunham might have been better off looking past her obvious Ameri-indie models for inspiration in the same way that her character flounders by picking only the cultural models most readily at hand on which to fashion her own identity.