Written and Directed by Lena Dunham
Starring: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Alex Karpovsky, Jemima Kirke, David Call, Grace Dunham
Run Time: 99 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
The writer, director and star of “Tiny Furniture,” Lena Dunham, has managed to pull off the ultimate fantasy of millions of Youtube videobloggers who aspire to fame and fortune-she has made an entertaining and engrossing movie about her own life, starring herself. It’s a movie that easily withstands the scrutiny of its own 99-minute duration. Anyone who thinks that’s easy to do should think again. With nothing more than a teensy camera and a big talent, Miss Dunham has made a great little movie. This 23-year-old filmmaker is the real thing.
A lot of media attention is being given to how Lena Dunham made her tiny little movie, especially about the casting of her own mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, as her mother in the film, and her younger sister as…yes, her younger sister. She even sets the film in her mother’s Tribeca loft (a great setting by the way, with all that space and whiteness). The boundaries between life and fiction are blurred even more by the fact that Miss Dunham takes few pains to try to hide any evidence that this film is hugely autobiographical-Lena Dunham may be playing a young woman named Aura in her film, but there is no doubt we are watching Lena Dunham, at least one version of Lena Dunham.
It’s a bit like Woody Allen in his own films. Miss Dunham has developed a persona through her own YouTube videos and Internet webseries, and it’s basically that character she portrays in “Tiny Furniture,” a woman in her early twenties who wants to be an artist, who has recently graduated from college and is just entering the playing field of adulthood, and whose sense of self is still being formed as she experiments both sexually and professionally. Miss Dunham also has a distinctively un-starlike look about her, and like Woody Allen, she uses that look as a plus rather than a drawback. Chubby, frowzy and often downright plain, she walks around her mother’s apartment in her underwear and a too small T-shirt to accentuate her bulges, creating a total lack of sex appeal in her appearance. But also like Woody Allen, we are drawn to her. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, and she’s very perceptive…in an oddly nebbishy kind of way. The fact that she’s a GIRL doing this-choosing to play against the conventional beauty card- makes it even approach the radical and feminist; her character conjures a wave of interest that goes beyond her film. Will Lena Dunham become be the Woody Allen of the 21st century?
Miss Dunham has talked at length in interviews about casting her mother and sister in her film, and how much, or how little, the film is based on her own life. From what I’ve gathered, all three are playing somewhat caricaturized versions of themselves, exaggerations of exactly what you might expect of a highly successful New York artist with two highly intelligent daughters who don’t look at all alike but who bicker like sisters everywhere. How Miss Dunham manages to direct her family members to make them act as well as they do-unselfconsciously and without overplaying-is a testament to her talents as a director. But the characters played by the mother and the sister are subordinate to the real story anyway, which centers around Miss Dunham’s, aka Aura’s, struggle to start her own life after college.
Just graduated from Oberlin College, Aura has returned to New York City to live with her mother while she figures out what to do next. Back in the cocoon of her younger self, she ends up sleeping a lot and moping around the house in her underwear. And she goes to parties, where she runs into an old girlfriend and meets another YouTube video artist who happens to be kind of cute (and a little bit famous, “in an Internet kind of way”), and who is in New York with a new agent trying for his own chance at fame and fortune.
When Aura’s mother and sister go away for a week to look at colleges, Aura invites the video artist to crash at her apartment. Meanwhile, Aura gets a job as a hostess at a local restaurant, where she strikes up a mild flirtation with a sous-chef, who seems only slightly more interested in her than the video artist who prefers sleeping in any other bed in her apartment than her own. And then there’s her old girlfriend Charlotte (sexy and screwed up, the kind of young woman many girls look up to), who gives her really bad advice and helps herself to her mother’s stash of wine. Charlotte is the foil to Aura’s timidly passive exterior self; she’s the brash sidekick, the devil on her shoulder, who leads Aura into the dangerous terrain of doing stuff without thinking of the consequences.
Anyone who feels sorry for Aura during the various humiliations she endures while wallowing in her post-college funk may not remember their own early twenties. Varying degrees of humiliation-at both the serving and receiving ends-is what youth is all about. Fortunately, Lena Dunham cushions the hits to Aura’s self-esteem with large doses of deadpan humor and a strangely assuaging candor. It’s as though the need to experience is more pressing than the unwillingness to get hurt. Unlike old people, whose fear of falling keeps them from moving at all, the young intuit that eventually their wounds will heal.
But Aura isn’t looking for rejection and humiliation either. She’s just a young woman who’s trying really, really hard to find herself, and who also has a need for physical intimacy like everyone else. Getting hurt is also a way to get to know yourself. And-striking evidence of Dunham’s talents as a writer-Aura isn’t always the one who gets hurt; she does her share of being self-centered and uncaring, or, even worse, passively self-defeating. “Tiny Furniture” is not a neatly tied-up story. Aura can irritate the hell out of you even as she pulls at your heartstrings.
“Tiny Furniture” seems destined to become a tiny hit, and bigwigs like Judd Apatow are courting Lena Dunham for future projects. In a way, I’m not surprised, even as I wonder at the collaboration. Miss Dunham is like a feminine version of the Judd Apatow male archetype, which hails the chubby, geeky pothead over the Ken Doll/GI Joe stereotype that still grips Hollywood. But there’s something more real about her filmmaking style, something that I hope doesn’t get crunched under the weight of Apatow’s own Hollywood-style insistence on narrative progression, everything tied neatly at the happy ending, where even the chubby, geeky pothead gets the (really pretty) girl.
At the end of “Tiny Furniture,” Aura seeks refuge in her mother’s bed, and she realizes she’s getting a little old for that (not to mention her mother, who is beginning to act like a needy child herself). It’s a funny moment, but it’s also sad. Kind of like life. Let’s hope Lena Dunham’s persona won’t get reshaped into a more palatable version for the mainstream crowd. I like her just the way she is.