REVIEW: Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture a Surprising, Startling Pleasure

Movieline Score:

"I'm writing 'young and gifted' in my autobiography," goes an old Sloan song. "I figured who would know better than me?" They're lyrics I found myself humming after watching Tiny Furniture, 23-year-old Lena Dunham's breakout triple threat, a time-lapse snapshot of young, wannabe womanhood in flux. Tiny Furniture (its title the foremost of a long line of references to Dunham's mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, who reprises that role in the film's lightly fictionalized take on their family) is less an artisanal, autobiographical calling card than it is a singularly self-conscious debut, although it is assuredly both.

Dunham is post-calling card, after all, having written, directed, and starred in her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, while still an undergraduate at Oberlin. It was that film (and her webisode work on projects like Delusional Downtown Divas) that attracted the funding for Tiny Furniture. People liked what Dunham was up to, and that confidence, surely outmatched by her own, resulted in a further extension of her experiments in self-regard. More drawn to building themes than plot, Dunham's layering of Aura's indecisions and contradictions balances classic coming-of-age tropes with an of-this-moment, first-person perspective. The challenge for Aura to emerge as a person and not, say, a compendium of cultural references (of which there are many here), is compounded by her determination to find a clear artistic voice. And even then, the question persists: Just how much of your own life is allowed to inform your art before the authorities alert the narcissism police?

For young women especially, the established, knee-jerk threshold seems pretty low. And yet much of the startling pleasure of watching Dunham play Aura -- a recent Oberlin graduate crashing at home for a few weeks and seeking validation in all of its available forms -- is the extent to which the film seems to court such accusations just so it can flatten them with surprising turns into style and emotional resonance. That said, I imagine if I weren't so starved for convincing on-screen representations of young women in all their complex, refractive, and often very funny psychic disarray, I might have harder feelings about an obvious hustler like Dunham choosing to inhabit, under the guise of self-reflexivity, the persona of a hapless, comically under-dated schlub -- that is to say the prototype adopted by her alpha muse, Tina Fey.

Aura looks to her mother, Siri (Simmons), for guidance on the question of who and how to be. But when Aura shows up for her post-grad residency at her family's swishy Tribeca loft (the film was shot in the actual Dunham home), Siri barely acknowledges her, and her teenage sister Nadine (Grace Dunham) doles out a cheap shot at her figure and a little territorial pissing in lieu of a welcome.

These early scenes are marred by sitcom-grade quipping and stilted exchanges; the alienation of coming "home" and confronting a reconfigured family dynamic is established more intuitively. Characters are often held within wide open, white-matted frames, and the mise en scene -- like many of Simmons's photographs of miniature interiors and their inhabitants -- offers an unsettling balance of diorama and drift. DP Jody Lee Lipes has a knack for slowing down moments until they dissolve into metaphor: There's a clever shot of Aura face-flopping onto a couch, only to have her headspace literally invaded by her sister's slender legs as they mount a treadmill; later, an unseen air mattress deflates at length, Aura's perch on top of it lowering incrementally.

Siri, a chilly woman who has re-bordered her fiefdom in her daughter's absence, offers unsurprisingly cool comfort: "I never think about my twenties," she tells Aura. "And I never look back." A few scenes later we learn that Siri is in fact engrossed in a career retrospective -- a career the actual Simmons spent, it seems, teasing out her youthful ideas, which themselves grew out of her conflicted relationship with her suburban Long Island upbringing.

Aura's "Is this art yet?" bids for attention include a YouTube video of her amplitude spilling from a bikini as she brushes her teeth in a campus fountain; intentionally or not, her body is the joke, and from the hit count it seems that everybody laughed. Aura's melancholy as she shows the video to an estranged girlhood friend named Charlotte (the outrageous Jemima Kirke, who practically slaps the movie out of Dunham's hands and stalks off with it whenever she's onscreen) seems rooted not in shame or self-loathing but in the inkling that no matter what she does or how hard she tries, she won't escape her body, or the scrutiny it draws.

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