The first thing we notice about Lena Dunham is that she does not look like a person who would normally star in a movie. We are made aware of how rarely we see ordinary-looking people in movies, especially women. But then, to depict a young woman as a human being--ordinary, earthy, flawed--is part of the point. To show us a moment like her character putting on roll-on is, after all, a choice. Her features are expressive, full of shy--not to say sly--deadpan humor and intelligence.
“Tiny Furniture” is a comedy, and quite funny, I think. It’s the story of a girl, Aura, who moves back in with her artist mother after graduation. (The antiseptic white of the apartment is a punch line in itself.) It’s a satire of the mores of twenty-something creative people in New York City, especially the feckless men. Alex Karpovsky is funny as an aspiring artist whom Aura invites to crash at her mom's apartment while she's out of town. She has a crush on him, but he'd rather read. David Call plays an asshole sous chef. Dunham satirizes her own tendency to defer to these assholes.
I think viewers who think Aura's a sulky lump can be forgiven. However, her state of mind will be relatable (or even recallable) to anyone who didn’t take the easy, unimaginative path and, say, go to law school.
It’s a personal movie. Dunham's mother, Laurie Simmons, plays her mother; her sister, Grace Dunham, plays her sister. In real life as in the movie, Laurie Simmons is a successful artist, meaning she's made a living from her art. For a creative person, that's the goal. (She makes photographs, sometimes of tiny furniture.)
Of course she actually had to create, which doesn't seem to have occurred to Aura and her mopey friends. This is probably the main difference between Dunham and her character, although, as with Woody Allen, people are going to confuse the two: Dunham made this movie, while Aura more or less sulks.
There are no great emotions in the picture, just moments of quiet honesty and sexual honesty, as well as the pleasure and surprise for a generation of seeing itself on screen. In that way the film does for this generation what “Breathless” did for another. That this generation won’t be as surprised to find themselves up on screen says more about the way the world’s changed than it does about the quality of this film, or about Dunham's supposed self-absorption.
Aura's friend from college (Merritt Wever) finally makes it to NYC. She is open, nonjudgmental, bookish, smart, funny, utterly free of fashion. Aura's new (old childhood) friend (Jemima Kirke) is loyal and means well; but she's also judgmental, superficial, full of ennui and English-accented high drama, and stylish. She’s “in the club,” and Aura decides she wants to be in the club. She's changed. The scene where she turns away from her old friend is sad.
Likewise, some begrudge Lena Dunham her status of being "in the club," but this film shows she’s not just lucky but talented, and that she is quite aware that the club is full of shit in many ways. In other words, "Tiny Furniture" walks a fine line, but in the end it's more a send-up than an expression of the ennui of the entitled.
Bring on “Girls”?