It has become almost impossible to avoid Lena Dunham at this point, and her first film “Tiny Furniture” is only hitting theaters today. How does an independent filmmaker in her mid-20s go from a micro-budget comedy that seems, on the surface, like a hundred other mumblecore movies from the last half-dozen years and end up making an HBO series produced by Judd Apatow before it’s even been released?
That’s not all she’s done, of course. Scott Rudin also hired her to adapt Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares. So that’s Rudin and Apatow both obviously impressed by “Tiny Furniture.” That seems like pretty strong endorsement. And when you’re talking about a very tiny film, sometimes that sort of endorsement can work against the movie by the time you see it. I missed it at this year’s SXSW, but the buzz has really only kicked in over the last few months. At this point, Dunham’s everywhere, and now people have a chance to see her film and get their introduction to her.
And, yes, I apologize for using that dreaded “m” word in the opening paragraph, but that’s certainly the label that is easiest to apply to the general school of filmmaking that Dunham belongs to. All that really means when most people use it is a certain sort of low-fi aesthetic and the basic subject matter of young people struggling to figure out their place in things. Dunham stars in her film as Aura, a girl who has just graduated and who returns home so she can figure out her next step in life.
She wants to get an apartment in New York with her friend Frankie (Merritt Wever), but first she wants to coast a little and live with her mother Siri (Laurie Simmons) and her sister Nadine (Grace Dunham). Dunham cast her own mother and sister in the parts, and the dynamic that they play in the film is almost distressingly real. Aura spends much of her time hanging out with her friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) and getting entangled with two complicated and irritating guys, the homeless Internet artist Jed (Alex Karpovsky) and the short-order chef Keith (David Call) who plays the whole “my girlfriend doesn’t get me” game. There’s not much more to the film than that, but what Dunham does exceptionally well is capture that feeling when you’ve just finished with something, some major life event, and you want affirmation and acknowledgement and you want a free ride for a while and you realize that the world really doesn’t give a shit about your amazing accomplishment and what the heck did you even do it for in the first place? It’s a period that many graduates go through, and Dunham finds a lot of very honest uncomfortable humor in Aura’s situation. She manages to make it all feel authentic, but she also has a finely tuned sense of absurdity that cuts anything that might feel melodramatic, always grounding it in a wry understanding that what Aura’s really doing is avoiding the beginning of “real life.” She’s an annoying character, but intentionally so. Dunham doesn’t let Aura off the hook. She’s willing to make herself the butt of the joke as long as it’s honest. There’s no ego to her work as an actor or as a director, and that is one of the things that is most endearing about “Tiny Furniture.” It doesn’t feel calculated. It just feels like the film she had to make to take her own first step into the world.
Visually, Dunham’s got a sharper visual sense than many of her peers. It’s subtle, but she has a real handle on how to sell a joke visually, and she also has a real knack for revealing character with the way she shoots a scene. Her cast is strong, and the film never meanders. So much of the criticism about these types of films is that sort of aimless, introspective inertia, and there’s only so much of that I can take. It may not sound like a compliment, but Dunham has an innate sense of the the big broad mainstream in what she does, and if she makes the jump to HBO or to big-budget movies, that’s not going to be difficult. “Tiny Furniture” is a small film, but it’s a major announcement, and it’s little wonder with a voice this strongly defined that Dunham has already found her place in the industry. We’ll be hearing much more from her, I’m sure.
“Tiny Furniture” opens in limited release today.