If Lena Dunham’s new indie dramedy Tiny Furniture doesn’t represent the voice of a new generation of filmmakers, then it will do nicely until the real thing comes along. It’s not that the twentysomething writer-director-actress does anything wildly different than those who came before her. Astute indie fans will certainly spot the DNA of predecessors Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing) and Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids are All Right) in the NYC filmmaker’s first feature. But Dunham’s debut is notable largely for what it does not do.
It is not hip or trendy or the slightest bit cool. It is also not ironically uncool—you know, like a Weezer video. It just feels authentic, honest and believable. That isn’t particularly shocking. Dunham herself stars as Aura, a fresh college graduate who retreats back to Manhattan in what she calls “a postgraduate delirium.” (Her sister, on the other hand, dismisses it as “an epilogue to ‘Felicity’.” ) Waiting at home for Aura are her overachieving little sister (played by Dunham’s real-life sister Grace) and her famous photographer mother (played by Dunham’s real-life famous photographer mother Laurie Simmons). All of this nepotism might seem like the height of self-indulgence. The game-changer here, though, is Dunham’s self-deprecating wit and sharp, observational eye for detail. (Aura’s college roommate, judging the incoming crop of freshmen, bemoans the steady stream of “mini-fridges, collapsable hampers and posters of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’.”)
With her college boyfriend returning unceremoniously home to Colorado and her degree in film theory getting her nowhere in the job market, Aura malingers at mom’s fancy Tribeca loft, sleeping late and getting into familiar arguments with her family. If Dunham, her mother and her sister aren’t simply being themselves on camera, they do a mighty convincing job of playing family members who love each other a lot, yet are deeply disappointed in one another.
There are those critics who have firmly stamped the “mumblecore” label on the side of Tiny Furniture. It’s not that the film lacks a connection with the films of Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair), Joe Swanberg (LOL), Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and others. It’s decidedly low-budget, focuses entirely on personal relationships and features a lot of nonprofessional actors talking to one another. Still, mumblecore is seeming less like a genre these days and more like an excuse for artistic laziness—all improvised dialogue and “found” camera angles. Dunham, in contrast, displays solid skills both as a writer and a director. Her script is filled with funny moments and “I know that person!” characters. The cinematography is well-thought-out, is smartly composed and doesn’t at all look like a Kevin Smith movie. Though she’s dealing with minimal characters, actions and settings, it never feels like Dunham is scrimping. Tiny Furniture is a professional effort. Not surprisingly, it had a very successful run on the film fest circuit and is nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards (Best Cinematography, Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay).
Granted, there isn’t a lot of plot, but that’s because the main character’s life is largely plotless at the moment. She considers relationships with a couch-surfing comedian (Alex Karpovsky) and an attractive sous chef (David Call). Both men are clearly jerks, but Aura is swayed by loneliness and the fact that the first guy is “a big deal on YouTube” and the second guy is reading a Cormac McCarthy novel. Reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Swingers: “I spend half the night talking to some girl who’s looking around the room to see if there’s somebody else who’s more important she should be talking to. And it’s like I’m supposed to be all happy ’cause she's wearing a backpack, you know?” Ah, I remember the days when all it took was a girl in a tiny backpack for me to make some poor decisions. But I digress.
Simple as it is, there’s something very lovable about Tiny Furniture. Perhaps it’s the unabashed way Dunham/Aura carries herself: schlumping around the house with no pants on, her imperfect thighs on full display; deflating an air mattress as if it holds the last of her dreams; raiding her party-gal pal’s tacky wardrobe in the hope it will get her laid. Yes, the whole “Boomerang Generation” is a hot topic these days, and Tiny Furniture milks it for both comedic and emotional inspiration. Nevertheless—buzzwords aside—just about anyone of any age can relate to a character who’s paralyzed by the prospect of an uncertain future. There are a lot of uncertain futures out there right now. At least Lena Dunham’s is looking rosy.