“Tiny Furniture” is a tiny film with a witty ear and eye for the language and affectations of New York 20-somethings trying to build careers in the Internet age. That it was made for around $50,000 is impressive. So was the buzz surrounding the film after it won the 2010 SXSW Film Festival’s jury prize for best narrative feature.
The heroine is Aura, played by writer-director Lena Dunham. Fresh off the plane from studying film theory for four years in Ohio, Aura arrives home with an undergrad degree but without her college boyfriend. He dumped her to pursue some vaguely defined spiritual mission. Aura’s teenage sister Nadine describes the guy as “like a little speck of granola on a bowl of homemade yogurt.”
Nadine is played by the filmmaker’s real sister, Grace Dunham, and their photographer mother, Siri, by their own mother, Laurie Simmons, herself a photographer. The vast Tribeca loft that all three contentiously co-inhabit is — you guessed it — the real-life Simmons-Dunham domicile. All this partly explains why the movie cost so little to make. It also increases your suspicion that “Tiny Furniture” is uncomfortably close to a too-easy vanity production.
Well, “vanity” may be the wrong word. As Aura stumbles into her post-graduate, quarter-century crisis, Dunham makes a point of making her/herself look dowdy and pear-shaped. There’s a sort of reverse narcissism in her willingness to look as homely as possible. (In a scene when she’s primped for a job interview, Aura/Lena looks attractive in ways that she seems to be studiously avoiding in every other scene.)
The plot, to the extent that there is one, sends Aura into semi-kinda-not-really relationships with two equally useless guys. The first is Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a fellow from Chicago who’s “a little bit famous” for riding a rocking horse in unfunny comedy routines on YouTube. With her mother and sister gone for the week, Aura invites him to crash at their loft. He takes up her offer with the icky enthusiasm of the professional, long-term mooch.
The other sorta-maybe-probably-not guy in Aura’s life is Keith (David Call), a sous chef with attitude, a possessive girlfriend and a nascent drug problem. (Actor Call, at least, has a bad-boy attractiveness, whereas Karpovsky’s Jed is smugly loathsome inside and out.)
The main point of Aura’s semi-liaisons with both guys is her lack of a moral compass and responsibility. But that intrinsic problem is spelled out earliest, and best, when she runs into a childhood friend whom she admits she’s been avoiding for five years. That’s Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a pill-popping blend of neediness and gutter glamour with a dubious British accent and a view of herself as a postmodern Marianne Faithfull. While Aura’s rekindled friendship with Charlotte seems questionable, Kirke is the best thing in the movie, giving it a needed energy boost every time she crashes her way into a scene.
In the end, “Tiny Furniture” puts the focus on the unearned but insistent sense of entitlement displayed by many over-coddled people of Aura’s age. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes hard to say whether the movie is satirizing or possibly even endorsing that sense of entitlement. They say the universal is found in the specific. That goes only so far with this film. After a while, the specific just feels specific, and a final-act conversation between Aura and her mother doesn’t have the sort of emotional payoff that Dunham seems to think it does. While you cut some slack for Aura at the start — whom Dunham, as an actress, makes you care for against the odds — after a while you want to say: show me the movie you make after you stop gazing in mock dismay at your own pudgy navel.
We’ll be hearing from Dunham again — and that’s not just speculation. She has a TV project in the works with Hollywood’s current favorite comedy writer-director, Judd Apatow. With a few more years/miles on her, I’m thinking that her sharp ear and eye will only get better — and her work will start to look outward as much as inward.
“Tiny Furniture.” With Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham. Written and directed by Lena Dunham. Unrated. 100 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.