This week in movies you missed: no, not a documentary about obsessive miniaturists (for that, try Marwencol). Tiny Furniture is a low-budget comedy about aimless youth that won a big prize at SXSW in 2010. It landed 25-year-old writer-director Lena Dunham a deal with Judd Apatow and HBO to develop her own TV series, "Girls," which premieres this April.
What You Missed
Dunham plays Aura, a recent college graduate who's just been dumped by her boyfriend. She moves back into her mom's Tribeca apartment, experiments with employment, woos two guys who seem uninterested in her, and complains when her mom and younger sister (played by Dunham's real-life mom and sister) seem less than thrilled with her company.
And that's pretty much it. Tiny Furniture is sort of like a Bret Easton Ellis novel without the sex and violence. What's left is a privileged protagonist who doesn't know what to do with herself and has the luxury of not needing to hurry to find out.
Why You Missed It
Tiny Furniture only reached one theater.
Should You Keep Missing It?
I know the above description makes it sound kinda awful. And when Tiny Furniture was selected for DVD release as part of the Criterion Collection, cinephiles turned out en masse to denounce Dunham as a spoiled rich girl with more connections than talent, given that her parents, Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, are professional artists. (For some of those hyperbolically negative reactions, read the comments on this interview with Dunham. For more on her background, read this New York Times piece.)
But I actually kind of enjoyed the film. As a writer, Dunham is still a lightweight at best. Some of her lines are too forcedly quirky, such as an early exchange where Aura says she's in a "postgraduate delirium," and her sister replies, "You sound like the epilogue to 'Felicity.'"
But other exchanges are genuinely funny, especially ones involving Aura's self-involved, very possibly crazy friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who's prone to growling things like "Take him [your crush] somewhere and grab his cock."
Also, the characters and situations feel real. Aura's relationship with her mom, whose 1974 diary she's reading, can be touching even if you want Mom to shake some sense into her. The film is nicely framed and shot; no shaky-cam stuff here. And it's good to see current phenomena like YouTube on screen; one of Aura's lust objects is a guy (Alex Karpovsky) who's mainly famous for videos in which he recites Nietzsche quotes while riding a rocking horse.
To be honest, though, here's the main reason I enjoyed Tiny Furniture: I feel like I've seen hundreds of movies where a schlubby, overeducated, directionless guy torments his friends and family members with his perfectionist rants while haplessly pursuing a girl too young and/or attractive for him. I've liked some of these films (Greenberg) and disliked others (most of Woody Allen's later oeuvre), but I have never seen such a film with the genders reversed. Until this one.
How many actresses who aren't conventionally Hollywood pretty would traipse around in their underwear and portray themselves in the generally unflattering manner that Dunham does here? I can't think of a single one. And, while that may not be an achievement by itself, it does make you question some of your assumptions.
For instance, would critics have liked Wendy and Lucy as much if someone like Dunham had played the title role instead of Michelle Williams? What is it that gives us empathy with a movie protagonist? Difficult circumstances? Strong motivation? Easiness on the eyes? Can we deny that the last one is sometimes a factor, film being a visual medium? I'm not saying looking like Michelle Williams would have made Aura a more likable character. It might, though, have changed the tenor and degree of the backlash against this slight film.
Verdict: I'm really curious to see what Dunham does with her HBO series about twentysomething women in NYC. I think there's a solid chance it will be terrible. But this film does suggest talent in need of time to mature.
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