Tiny Furniture brings me to an impasse that few films have, and I think this in part results from the fact that it arises from a peculiar situation in contemporary American independent film from which it would be judged. Since around 2004 or so, the “Andersonian” “trendy indie” has been a visible part of American cinema culture. Films ranging from Juno to Garden State have ramped up soundtrack sales for hip bands, added slang to the lexicon, and given us initially brisk low-scale entertainment that quickly escalated to a level of annoyance once critical and audience praise reverberated a bit too loudly.
Concurrently, the Wes Anderson-style (and his films have as much to do with the former category as well) “unlikeable protagonist” has made quite a few appearances in similar films, as the cinema of Noah Baumbach and Alexander Payne have given us white middle-class protags who are unlikeable assholes that we’re supposed to feel compassionate about, and they do so with varying degrees of success. Such brands of filmmaking will inevitably, and have already, drawn comparisons to Tiny Furniture, and while the reverberations of such brands of cinema rang through my head while watching this film, I can’t help but relent and deem this an unfair comparison.
What’s the difference? Well, one of the differences is that Tiny Furniture is actually an independent film. And I don’t mean “independent film” that has recognizable movie or TV stars, an expensive soundtrack, and was co-funded or picked up by a studio subsidiary “indie” label. I mean the film was made from scratch, with limited resources, then pursued audiences through the oh-so circuitous festival circuit (where Neil Miller saw it at SXSW). This type of filmmaking affords as many opportunities as it creates limitations, and second-time 24-year-old feature writer-director-actor Lena Dunham (her first film is the even-smaller hour-long Creative Nonfiction) puts those limitations and those opportunities on full display as her art imitates her life in a most literal fashion.
Tiny Furniture is directly semi-autobiographical, concerning the day-to-day of a postgrad immediately following her exit from “some college in Ohio” and re-entrance within her family home in TriBeCa where her seventeen year-old sister and artist-photographer mother continue to reside. Lena plays the postgrad, Aura; her real-life sister, Grace, plays her sister Nadine; and her real-life mother, Laurie Simmons (a successful working photographer of the exclusive “successful in Manhattan” variety), plays her mother, Siri. The house in which the family resides was filmed in the impressive Manhattan location that is the Dunham/Simmons’ real-life abode. The connections are obvious, and Lena mines the resources she has available just as effectively for convenience as for effect, and in 99.99% of other cases would be a disastrous casting-your-family situation works out enormously well, as the trio maintains a humorous chemistry even as they’re yelling at one another which feeds off their mutual years-long relationship. While the amateur bag of tricks that is her family of actors should not be advised to test their range elsewhere, they do play her family very, very well.
The narrative of Tiny Furniture is composed mostly of episodes between Aura’s home life and her decidedly half-assed attempts at finding life outside of that work life. And her “work” and “home” lives intersect a great deal. She runs into an old friend at a party (Jemima Kirke) who hooks her up with a hostess job where she tries time and again to get the attention of attractive-but-vapid chef Keith (David Call). Meanwhile, she houses freeloading YouTube “star” Jed (Alex Karpovsky) in her family’s abode as he attempts to sell out his “Neitzschean cowboy” into mainstream success.
Attempts to encapsulate Tiny Furniture’s plot reflexively settle on some iteration of “a woman’s attempt to define herself,” which is three things: 1) not a plot, 2) meaningless, and 3) not an accurate description of Tiny Furniture. While the film on the surface may remind us of the indie brands mentioned earlier, it has few of their trappings. It has no aims of using storytelling to “define” the Millennial generation (the film treats YouTube, for instance, as a simple reality, not something that profoundly creates our identity; real human interaction is still valuable here) and it doesn’t assume that it’s modest indie aspirations are aiming towards portraying a universal experience (for this would imply, rather problematically, that white upper-middle class privilege is a universal norm).
The aspirations of Tiny Furniture go instead in the opposite direction: inward and specific. Like the title referencing the objects that Siri photographs implies, this is a film that looks only at the immediate details, not the big picture, which also informs Dunham’s casting and preoccupation with her real-life family. As Aura is unable to see past the immediate moment, the plot is structured in a way that provides no foreseeable linear direction to an inevitable destination. And this is a good thing, for to have Aura “find herself” would be insincere in the same vein as the trendy indies mentioned earlier. Instead, we leave Aura in a much more confused place than where she started, which might not be a satisfying ending to some, but also represents something of a breath of fresh air for this reviewer. This film is truly independent in a way that reminds us what independent films really are, following more distinctly the tradition of Hal Hartley than that of Zach Braff. On first viewing, Tiny Furniture may seem a collection of go-nowhere scenes, but once you walk away from it, it’s pattern reveals itself as having been carefully constructed all along.
Tiny Furniture is a film that can’t really be judged on its own. It has unavoidable surface similarities to other indies occupying the landscape, and in many ways the film’s intertextual referencing invites such comparisons (Jed is often seen reading a book by Woody Allen, Jody Lee Lipse’s impressive cinematography recalls Robert Yeoman’s collaborations with Anderson). That being said, Tiny Furniture might be seen as aggressively original if viewed in a vacuum, but it undeniably suffers from the same problems of its immediate compatriots when viewed in the world in which we exist. While Dunham provides an insightful portrayal of the large caste of listless overeducated undergrads (one particular moment I loved occurred when Aura asks Siri, who comes from such a different generation of artists, whether or not she’s ever had a “real job”), there’s many a breaking point at which one can stand watching anybody, especially a person in such a privileged position, feel sorry for herself to the point of destruction.
Fortunately, Dunham is not Aura. Dunham is an ambitious filmmaker with a keen eye and an even more critical ear. I look forward to seeing what she does next, but I hope for her sake and ours that she moves away from home next time.
The Upside: An impressive small-scale work with a true independent spirit. It’s clever, insightful, and dark without being “clever,” “insightful,” and “dark.”
The Downside: It portends better future work more than standing on its own as a great film; difficult to care about its characters.
On the Side: Unfortunately, the Neitzchean Cowboy does not seem to actually exist on YouTube.