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Tiny Furniture
Director: Lena Dunham
Screenplay: Lena Dunham
Stars: Lena Dunham (Aura), Laurie Simmons (Siri), Grace Dunham (Nadine), Jemima Kirke (Charlotte), Alex Karpovsky (Jed), David Call (Keith), Merritt Wever (Frankie), Amy Seimetz (Ashlynn)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2010
Country: U.S.
Tiny Furniture Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Tiny Furniture Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a comedy of discontent constructed largely out of the writer/director/star’s own life, which makes those awkward moments where we’re not sure whether we should laugh or cry feel all the more awkward because in the back of our minds we’re wondering, “Did this actually happen at some point in her life?” Those interested in answering that question can look up the numerous interviews with Dunham that followed the film’s claiming the top narrative feature prize at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival and its successful indie theatrical run. I prefer to assume that everything in the film has some direct connection to Dunham’s life if only because Dunham seems to insist on such a reading given the casting of her real-life mother, sister, and childhood friend as her on-screen mother, sister, and childhood friend, as well as the use of The Fountain, a video she made while a student at Oberlin College that first got her noticed when it was posted on the front YouTube page.

Dunham, who was 24 at the time she made the film, plays Aura, a young woman who has just graduated from college in Ohio and, like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin 45 years ago, has no idea what to do with her life. In a self-professed “postgraduate delirium,” Aura moves back in with her mother Siri (Laurie Simmons), a successful photo-artist who lives in a sleek, all-white loft in Tribeca (her work revolves primarily around shooting pictures of the titular tiny furniture). Also living there is Nadine (Grace Dunham), Aura’s 17-year-old sister who has already won a national prize for poetry. There is natural competition between the sisters, as Aura resents Nadine’s thinner body and pre-collegiate intellectual success while Nadine resents Aura for coming back into her space when she should be moving off into the world.

While clearly intelligent, Aura is also clearly unmoored. Her college degree doesn’t seem to have prepared her for anything, and her boyfriend left her right before graduation to return to Colorado to seek something—perhaps himself. Aura reconnects with her childhood friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who is also the daughter of a successful artist and speaks with a possibly faux British accent. Where Aura is somewhat awkward and frumpy, Charlotte is lithe and gregarious; she’s like a fashion model with nothing to do but meddle in Aura’s life. Through Charlotte Aura meets Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a self-absorbed performance artist who has gained a small following through his pretentious YouTube videos as the “Nietzschean Cowboy.” She allows him to stay at her mom’s loft while she is out of town, perhaps hoping that romantic sparks will fly, although Jed is clearly more interested in reading Woody Allen than having anything to do with Aura. She also sets her sights on Keith (David Call), a sous-chef at the restaurant where Aura gets a lowly job as a day hostess answering phone calls and taking reservations. Like Jed, Keith appears to have little romantic interest in Aura (and he has a girlfriend with whom he lives, to boot), but Aura is nevertheless smitten with his roughish charms. For Aura, all romance appears to be unrequited, making Tiny Furniture amusingly anti-romantic.

Perhaps the key moment in the film is when Siri asks Charlotte, “Do you have as much sense of entitlement as my daughter?,” to which Charlotte answers without missing a beat, “Oh, believe me, mine is much worse.” The various characters’ sense of entitlement is the connecting theme throughout Tiny Furniture, threading together what otherwise feels aimless and meandering: Aura is entitled to her postgraduate malaise and extended dependency on her mother; her mother is entitled to her single-minded focus on her art at the expense of her children; and Nadine is entitled to her years as an gratified “only child” after Aura has graduated. The men in the film are even worse: Jed perpetually takes from Aura’s obviously desperate generosity and gives nothing in return, even moralistically chiding her at one point for not fully delivering on what he expected, while Keith is simply a cad, paying attention to Aura only when he thinks she can get him drugs and then using her for sex when the opportunity presents itself. All of this entitlement could be enough to sink the movie—how can we stand being with people this self-centered and unpleasant?—but Dunham manages to balance the characters’ flaws and draw satisfyingly cringe-worthy humor out of their interactions.

Aura is certainly a pathetic character, cut adrift from real connection and unable to satisfy her desires, but she feels decidedly real, which makes her tantrums, self-pity, and horrible decisions more bearable (I can imagine some viewers wanting to push her out a window). Dunham has a strikingly open face and kind eyes, and she plays Aura with a complete lack of vanity, both physically (she purposefully puts her less-than-ideal body in a maximum number of unflattering positions) and emotionally (at times Aura acts like a spoiled child and she doesn’t seem to learn much of anything at the end beyond finally being able to articulate what she really wants in life). As a writer, Dunham has an ear for dialogue that treads the thin line between the realities of how people speak and the pleasures of witty scripted speech. There are times when the characters speak in ways that feel decidedly written, but most of the time their interactions feel genuine. The film’s sense of presence is aided by the fact that almost no one is a professional actor by trade, and their lack of actorly mannerisms feels more natural than amateurish.

Dunham is aided greatly by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Afterschool, Martha Marcy May Marlene), who translates her ideas and themes into striking visual language. Dunham, after all, majored in creative writing in college and more or less stumbled into filmmaking as a means of telling stories, a happenstance that is born out by the awkward, decidedly uncinematic nature of her early short films and her first feature, Creative Nonfiction (2009), which she completed during her senior year in college. Lipes gives Tiny Furniture an elegantly functional visual sense that makes the various spaces in and around New York City narratively and thematically evocative (Siri’s trendy loft is a beauty of modernist design and a tribute to her intellectual and artistic endeavors, but it looks like a lousy place to be raised as a child). There is nothing particularly great about Tiny Furniture even though is succeeds admirably in its relatively scaled ambition to evoke the discomfort of a particular time in one’s life while also jabbing playfully at the pretensions of the insular Soho art scene. It’s a curious debut for an intriguing young filmmaker, and it will be interesting to see where Dunham goes next.

Tiny Furniture Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Tiny Furniture is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video conversation between director Lena Dunham and writer/filmmaker Nora Ephron
  • Video interview with filmmaker Paul Schrader
  • Creative Nonfiction (2009), Dunham’s first feature film, with an introduction by the director
  • Four short films by Dunham
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Phillip Lopate
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateFebruary 14, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Tiny Furniture was shot with a Canon 5D digital camera and completed in a fully digital workflow, so the image and sound on Criterion’s Blu-Ray is an exact replication of what was seen theatrically. The film’s 1080p high-def image, framed at 2.35:1, looks very nice and surprisingly natural, which is reflective of the fine work of cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. The image is sharp and well detailed, with excellent color and contrast. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master. The film is dialogue heavy so most of the sound is restricted to the front soundstage, although there is some ambient noise in the surrounds and a few directional effects outside on the city streets.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    It’s not too often that you essentially get a filmmaker’s entire body of work on a single disc, but that appears to be what Criterion has done with the Blu-Ray of Tiny Furniture. The supplements include Creative Nonfiction (2009), Dunham’s amateurish, but still intriguing first feature film (made during her last two years at college, it runs just under an hour) with an introduction by the director, as well as four of the short films she made during college, including The Fountain (2007). To provide some context for Dunham’s achievement, there is an 8-minute video interview in which filmmaker Paul Schrader offers his thoughts on the film’s relation to “mumblecore” and why there has been a backlash against it, as well as a half-hour video conversation between Dunham and writer/filmmaker Nora Ephron, whose Heartburn (1986) was particularly influential for Dunham (they also discuss the films of Woody Allen and what is means to be both a female and an autobiographical filmmaker).

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and IFC Films


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