Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture brings to light an important existential stage in the life cycle of the over-coddled, over-stimulated kid from New York City. Every spring, a flock of young adults swoops into the city with expensive degrees in English, art history, film theory, and the like. It’s only a matter of time before these fresh-faced hopefuls, with their newly minted troves of cultural knowledge, come up against a harsh and specific reality: nobody gives a shit. Whether or not this situation, with its attending angst, qualifies as one on which anyone else in the entire world should spend an ounce of time, energy, or pathos is a legitimate and larger question that is beyond the bounds of this review. Having been through it myself, however, I can say here that Dunham pretty much covers the territory.
Dunham, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, graduated from Oberlin just two years ago. Set in the incredibly white Tribeca loft where she grew up — her real-life mother (the internationally renowned artist Laurie Simmons) and her sister (Grace Dunham) costar as her mother and sister — the film opens with Dunham’s character, Aura, returning from school, heartbroken and adrift after the sudden end of a long relationship. Feeling the need to do something but not sure exactly what, Aura makes a lot of decisions that range from half-baked to just plain bad. In a move that stands as a statement to her artist mother more than an actual plan, Aura gets a job day-hosting (i.e., picking up the phone) at a nearby restaurant and then abruptly quits at the sight of her first garbage paycheck. Romantically, desperation rules the day, as she invites the incredibly pretentious Jed (Alex Karpovsky) to freeload at her place while her mother and sister are on a college trip. While she scrambles for any crumb of affection from him, with his callousness and indifference met with winces from the audience, she also carries on a flirtation with the differently but equally callous sous-chef of the restaurant (David Call).
Still, when it comes to honesty and realism (which are the primary strengths of the film), that is my only quibble. Dunham goes all out in lampooning herself, showcasing some truly excellent mopings and tantrums whose causes generally don’t correlate with the intensity of the reactions they provoke. A particularly wonderful close-up shot has Aura, with a solid frown, literally deflating down the screen in front of our eyes as she lets the air out of an air mattress. Dunham also sheds some very accurate light on the surreal experience of trying to return to a home as well as start anew in New York City. She exposes the unexpected way in which a return to family and old friends coincides with the discovery of a new and different place full of strange, manipulative, and (often) lonely people.
One of the lonely but very interesting people in this city is Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), Aura’s long-lost childhood best friend and easily the strongest character in the film. Charlotte dabbles in “curating” and fashion but really has little to do other than live off her parents’ money and pharmaceutical prescriptions. Her self-awareness is a welcome foil to Aura’s cluelessness, and she provides a couple of the best lines in the film. In response to Aura’s mother asking disapprovingly, “Are you as entitled as my daughter?” “Oh no,” she says, “I’m much worse.” When Aura talks about getting a job and moving out, Charlotte snorts down her nose, “What are you going to do, move to Bed-Stuy or Fort Greene?” Aura doesn’t really answer, which is answer enough. You can call it snobbishness, or you can just call it plain honesty from two young women living rent-free in Tribeca.
Even though I’ve been touting the honesty of the film, there is a flip side to it that, personal sympathies aside, left me unsatisfied. It is a feeling that falls in line with the experience I have with mumblecore films specifically, some of which feel like one is watching the actors all work together to squeeze a collective whitehead. Sure, there is precision, “naturalism,” and a fascinated revulsion with what things are “really like,” but little by way of charm or meaty character. Even in reality, people can be witty, caring, and dependable every now and again. While I am not asking for a Nora Ephron menopausal white wine fest, I do think that Dunham and other filmmakers of my generation portray a very cold, awkward world, substituting depth of character for a veneer of stammering “reality.” What Tiny Furniture describes, it describes well. Should you care? Will audiences care in the future? Eh, maybe a little.