There is an epidemic of sorts in the world of independent filmmaking. It’s something that I blame on the likes of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. A thematic choice so perfectly interesting if done well, yet so painful to watch if done incorrectly. It is the cult of the unlikeable character. It’s a bug that’s going around. In these stories — often set in upper upper class, or otherwise hip neighborhoods in New York — we’re made to feel as if we might root for characters who we’d otherwise want to smack, if they were real. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And in the case of Tiny Furniture, it doesn’t quite work. However, I will concede that it is the single most adorable movie I’ve ever seen that involves characters who I’d otherwise like to see get hit by a bus.
The story follows Aura, played by writer/director Lena Dunham, a recent college graduate who has moved back home from school in Ohio to her mom’s studio loft in Tribeca. Dunham’s real life mother (Laurie Simmons) and sister Grace star as her tight-knit, quirky mom and hyper-ambitious sister — a gang of gals who look down upon Aura’s inability to find her way in the world. She also re-connects with an old friend, the neurotic and glamorously spoiled Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), and meets a new friend in Jed (Alex Karpovsky), an internet performer who weasels his way into staying with Aura while her mom and sister are out looking at colleges.
There is a certain charm to Aura’s story of self-discovery, her passage into adulthood. But much of it is driven by Lena Dunham’s brave work as an actress, and her even more impressive visual work as a director. Together with talented cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, she captures some beautiful shots of the Tribeca district and her mother’s loft. Their use of color and creative framing is enough to engage a more technically inclined viewer. At times, Tiny Furniture is a very vivacious, vibrant film. And in several small moments of brilliance — Dunham’s dialog is smart, and it gets laughs.
Where things get sticky is in the characters. Everyone in this film is a mess of a different color. Aura is charming, but is also a spoiled, overly dramatic girl whose fortune in life seems to be completely lost on her. She also makes an escalating series of bad choices — one of which ends in an awkward sex scene in an even more awkward location. Her friends, if you can call them that, are a buffet of annoying sterotypes, from the posh, spastic Charlotte to the parasitic and pretentious Jeb — he’s a Nietzschean Cowboy. They’re all a maddeningly unlikeable bunch, void of any redeeming qualities.
On top of the high unlikeability of the individual characters, Tiny Furniture also suffers from a lack of purpose. As stories go, it is good to be going somewhere. And this movie’s narrative seems to relish in the fact that it is going nowhere. The art of the non-story is not one that should be practiced so early in the career of a filmmaker. To her credit, Dunham does show us that she has a wonderful upside and could very well make some charming, smart films in the future. The operative phrase there being “in the future.” Despite being almost incensed with this piece of work, I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.