Mumblecore may have grown up and moved out, but it’s vestiges of post-collegiate hang-ups and foibles still remain in Tiny Furniture, the low-budget sophomore effort from 24 year-old New York writer/director/actress Lena Dunham, new out this week.
A paper-thinly veiled autobiography of sorts of Dunham’s own recent life starring Dunham herself, the film follows the first few post-graduate weeks of 22 year-old liberal arts major Aura, an endearingly frumpy aspiring creative, who, jobless and relationship-less, returns to the comforts of the family nest; a modernist-boheme, interior design dream loft in Tribeca. Whilst welcomed back nonchalantly by her sister Nadine, played by her real life sister Grace Dunham, and mother Siri, played by her real life mother and art world photographer Laurie Simmons, Aura’s presence soon becomes a bit of an anchor for all those involved.
Stuck in the water, Aura soon gains impetus after discovering her mother’s journal from when she was Aura’s age, and finds out that she then had a bevy of relationship issues, sex with different men, esoteric interests; in essence, a life. What kind of life Aura wants to carve out for herself during this formative period becomes the central question, and when standing in the shadow of a successful artist mother and burgeoning success-story sister (an athletic, award-winning 19 year-old poet in the film, and in real life), it proves an overbearing one.
Though this may sound like a carbon copy ‘my woeful life on screen’ vanity project on paper, Aura’s quest for sexual, societal and creative significance taps into the anxieties of a very real and thriving 20something subculture –one that barters in 21st century buzz-terms like ‘hipster’, ‘mumblecore’ and ‘unemployed’– and Tiny Furniture is well equipped to deal with any anti-apathy epithets you may want to throw at it; Aura gets a job within the first 20 minutes, it’s rather sharp and incisive in its portraiture, and Dunham is by far her own worst critic, painting Aura as a somewhat pathetic sympathetic. Tiny Furniture is not about a social outcast, at the mercy of the job market and scummy men, but rather a confused and flawed young adult, desperately seeking that ‘next step’ and succumbing to a few pitfalls on the way.
One of those pitfalls is amusingly embodied in Aura’s destructive pre-school friend Charlotte, who ends up reconnecting with Aura at a house party. Played with minx-like relish by Jemima Kirke, supposedly channeling childhood friend Paz de la Huerta, Charlotte’s engorged sense of entitlement, trust-fund lifestyle and wild personality is both a comedic crutch for the director and a cautionary warning.
Other warnings flare up in spades, like when Aura meets minor YouTube celebrity Jed (Alex Karpovsky), and eagerly offers to let him stay at her place after he half-heartedly convinces her that he’s in town for meetings with television executives, citing that he might have a development deal in the pipeline. This, of course, is fooey, but his manipulative worming is evident to all but Aura, who’s just lonely and desperate enough to pursue a relationship, even after he outrightly refuses.
Aura’s emotional state is deftly realised in one surprisingly poignant moment late in the film, in which we see her naked in the shower after an embarrassingly awkward sexual encounter designed to make the audience laugh. In the scene, shot from outside the bathroom door peering voyeuristically in, we watch her re-assume the sexual position she had just been in moments earlier, as if trying to relive the moment. It’s a sad and private revelation that helps reign in the film’s emotional core, and succeeds in setting up the enigmatically ambiguous ending — an ending, which I must say, provides a subtlety and artistry so unassuming, that it sheds a refreshingly mature light on everything that comes before.