Toeing the line between candid self-reflection and pitiable narcissism, “Tiny Furniture” could end up becoming the runaway indie hit of the year. Writer/director Lena Dunham stars as Aura, a recent college grad who returns to her mother’s Tribeca loft and subsequently finds herself in an existential funk, fighting with her younger sister and aimlessly gadding about with her directionless friend.
Proving the old adage of “write what you know” true, Dunham made the film upon finding herself in the same situation as her character. Moreover, Dunham cast her real sister to play Aura’s sister Nadine as well as her own mother—the artist Laurie Simmons—to play her character’s mother, Siri.
As Aura seeks to cement herself as an artist in her own right, she struggles with the self-induced feelings of living in her mother’s shadow. Simmons’ own work—cheeky and creative photographs of miniature furniture—gives the film its literal namesake, but the immaculate dollhouse world she creates isn’t the only thing that gives her daughter woe: there’s also a pair of deficient love interests. One beau abuses Aura’s hospitality, the other feigns interest to take advantage of her awkward sexual preferences. Even Aura’s choice in men seems aimless and perfunctory.
What may appear to be a mundane, cliche coming-of-age tale is a delicate, artful confessional. It’s nice to see art imitate life, especially when it’s as personal and provoking as Dunham’s film. The story unfolds listlessly, with all the nuance and delicacy of a seasoned actress/director.
With “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham successfully modernizes and feminizes “The Graduate” and infuses it with the moral apathy of the iGeneration—those who blog and live in New York City like it’s the only place left in the world. This discerning self-criticism is refreshing because Dunham is wholly aware of the illusory nature of bohemia. Her film is biting without being cruel, frequently hilarious and full of charm, owed entirely to a lack of grand or outlandish set pieces.
Like Wes Anderson at his best, the most amusing scenes come from familial interactions in which the most pertinent subject is the one being avoided. Too often, and much to her chagrin, Aura’s mother and sister let her flounder in disillusion. Her exasperation draws laughs and pathos in equal doses.
But rather than lionize her plight, Dunham avoids a sort of false heroism by remaining entirely unglamorous. By Hollywood standards, she doesn’t fit the mold of the leading lady: Her body is imperfect, her insecurities are obvious and her desires are uncertain. But her deficiencies—if you can call them that—are what make her appealing as an artist.
However, it is possible to interpret this apparent lack of vanity as just a new form of narcissism. One of the only aspects of consistency in Aura’s life is her YouTube account, in which she posts videos of her performance art. There’s a sequence in the film where Nadine throws a party. When Aura causes a scene, voraciously telling her sister to end the party in front of its attendees, Nadine chastises her, saying the reason she’s angry is because nobody is paying attention to her, which is why she posts those “stupid YouTube videos.”
But while Aura may exist in the age of egotism—as bloggers and tweeters post their every thought to a faceless and unreceptive “audience”—she at least carries the weight of its irrelevancy. What makes her story unique and true to her generation is that, by the end of the film, Aura is finally aware it’s all just tiny furniture.