By Matt Connolly
Dir. Lena Dunham, U.S., IFC Films
Resist the urge to check out of Tiny Furniture after the first twenty minutes. The winner of Best Narrative Feature at this yearâ€™s SXSW Film Festival (natch), writer/director Lena Dunhamâ€™s second film begins with enough self-satisfied tics to make even the hardiest filmgoer break out in indie-smirk hives. As Teddy Blanksâ€™s (admittedly catchy) score wafts by, we open with a cross-cut sequence between our heroineâ€™s post-college journey home and credits that share the screen with little floating icons of the filmâ€™s titular household accoutrements, which glide across the frame with studied listlessness, presaging the filmâ€™s aesthetic. Aura (Dunham) finally arrives at the Tribeca studio still occupied by her distracted conceptual-artist mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), and overachieving high school sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham). Her anxieties about life after undergrad, however, fall largely on deaf ears, with Siri assembling new pieces and Nadine juggling an extracurricular load ranging from track to poetry writing.
Dunham and DP Jody Lee Lipes shoot the apartmentâ€™s blindingly white walls and constricting hallways with a static camera and one eyebrow arched, the spaceâ€™s chic sterility becoming an all-too-easy corollary to the chilly homecoming Lena receives from her mother and sister. The familial relationships themselves get roughly the same treatment. Nadine and Auraâ€™s sibling banter has the slightly airless quality of dialogue written for maximum cleverness, while Siri comes off as a clichĂ© of art-world self-involvement. (A clunker of a running joke has Siri instructing Aura to retrieve items from the â€śwhite cabinet,â€ť causing her to stand dumbfounded before a wall of identical monochromatic cabinet doors.) Dunham may know of what she speaks; Simmons and Grace Dunham are her actual mother and sister, and she shot the film in her motherâ€™s apartment. But biographical factoids do not necessarily make for incisive comedy, and Tiny Furnitureâ€™s take on postgraduate familial disconnection initially comes off as self-amused at best, snide and shallow at worst.
Things donâ€™t bode much better when the focus shifts beyond home. Venturing into the recession-era economy with little more than a film theory degree and a couple hundred YouTube hits for a self-made short of her frolicking semi-nude in a fountain, Aura distracts herself from job worries by slipping back into pre-college habits. She attends a loft party soon after arriving home, where she runs into Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a former childhood friend and a wild-child product of the Tribeca art scene. Charlotte seems cut from the same caricatured cloth as the other characters, brandishing a (possibly affected) British accent and first greeting Aura by drunkenly slapping her in the face.
But when Aura goes back to Charlotteâ€™s cluttered apartmentâ€”owned by Charlotteâ€™s mother, naturallyâ€” to catch up, Tiny Furniture begins its slow shift from defensive satire to a wry examination of twentysomething indecision, and a refreshingly female-centric one at that. Far from becoming the continual butt of the filmâ€™s jokes, Charlotte develops into its comic dynamo. Kirke gives Charlotteâ€™s profane observations the knowing, slightly slurry spin of a woman at once sick and enamored of her life of bohemian privilege. Sheâ€™s a hot mess, but a shrewd and caring one, and her winking hedonism blends nicely with Dunhamâ€™s sardonic minimalism. Itâ€™s a sign of Dunhamâ€™s unexpected generosity that while Aura and Charlotteâ€™s renewed friendship marks a regression of sorts for Aura, it also feels pleasurably lived in. Tiny Furniture is at its best when considering the bumpy reconciliation between college and home life. When Auraâ€™s quirky college friend and would-be Manhattan roommate Frankie (Merritt Wever) finally comes to New York and meets Charlotte, Dunham smartly dramatizes their distinct and appealing temperaments as representing a choice for Aura to make, and itâ€™s largely free of condescension or deck-stacking.
Tiny Furniture is attuned to the rhythms of post-collegiate aimlessness, more interested in the details of a given moment than in watching them accumulate into concrete plotlines. Aura takes a hostessing job at local restaurant Clandestino, where she spends most of her time bantering with cute, self-involved sous chef Keith (David Call). At home, she opens the temporarily empty apartment to Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a minor YouTube celebrity in need of a place to crash while heâ€™s â€śtaking meetingsâ€ť with Comedy Central and others. (His online alter ego, the â€śNietzschean Cowboy,â€ť intones lines from the German philosopher while dressed in a ten-gallon hat and straddling a rocking horse.) Both of these pairings proceed in a stop-start fashion, full of would-be flirtations and missed opportunities. But because Tiny Furniture views romance as just another vague possibility rather than a narrative end, these interpersonal short-circuits can share equal screen time with non sequiturs. Thereâ€™s a priceless little scene where Aura, readying herself for a soon-to-be botched date with Keith, agrees to watch the neighborâ€™s son. No more than six or seven, the boy plays with a fire truck while Aura makes small talk. â€śWhat should I wear on my date?â€ť she asks the boy. He stops, thinks for a moment, and proclaims guilelessly, â€śA tube top!â€ť
Thankfully, Dunham doesnâ€™t attempt to push Auraâ€™s thwarted love affairs into a more amorphous â€śgenerational statementâ€ť on male-female disconnection in the digital age, etc. She keeps her gaze grounded, and saves most of her most cutting jabs for Aura herself (no more so than in a chokingly funny fight with her mother and sister that culminates with Aura screaming in self pity and knocking items off a dresser). The filmâ€™s men ultimately donâ€™t hold a candle to the women, anyway. This proves particularly true of Nadine and Siri, both of whom emerge as prickly, idiosyncratic creations. The initially ossified nature of Nadine and Auraâ€™s sibling fights becomes increasingly genuine as the film progresses, no more so than when Nadineâ€™s impromptu house party prompts a wonderfully bitter screaming match between her and Aura. And while Siri remains an elusive figure in some ways, her relationship with Aura takes on some poignant shading once Aura secretly begins reading Siriâ€™s postcollege journals, catching glimpses into a life that seems both more exciting than and equally mundane as her own. Tiny Furniture captures their perpetual cycles of annoyance, arguments, and reconciliations with a clear, affectionate eye, giving this initially too-cool-for-school film a beating heart. Even that damned Tribeca loft feels different than before. The ludicrously antiseptic white walls and claustrophobic corridors seem less important than the way all three women move through and around them: casually entering one anotherâ€™s spaces, sometimes spurned and sometimes welcomed. In the end, Tiny Furnitureâ€™s triumph might be in the way it makes this would-be punch line of a house feel something like a home.