Film Review: Tiny Furniture

Rambling indie tale of a young New York City woman who moves in with her mother and sister after graduating from college.

In Tiny Furniture, writer-director Lena Dunham plays Aura, a narcissistic brat who has just returned home after her college graduation. Plain and overweight, Aura quickly slips into old habits when she moves in with her mother, Siri, a successful artist who photographs miniature furniture, and her sister Nadine, a high-school student and budding poet.

Siri and Nadine are played by Laurie Simmons and Grace Dunham, Aura’s real-life mother and sister; Siri’s loft in the film is actually the Dunham homestead. What this says about the filmmaker and her family might have been a subject for contemplation in the era of Woody Allen and psychoanalysis—Dunham owes a debt to Allen—but not in these navel-gazing times when a family’s neuroses may end up as the subject of hundreds of unabashed tweets.

In a film where the protagonist is as unlikable as Aura, and the performances are as deadpan as they are here, the sole appeal is a moment-to-moment, fly-on-the-wall portrait of life in Tribeca—not very different from the effect of a tweet. That downtown neighborhood is, for Dunham, emblematic of New York City, which seems to have morphed over the past few decades from an urbane, intellectual center, the kind found in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan films,” to the artsy, fashionable and less cerebral city it is in Tiny Furniture. Dunham’s film has fewer inside jokes than Allen’s movies, but her young characters, like Allen’s, are affluent, self-absorbed, and unable to find happiness. An obvious reference to Allen is Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a Jewish filmmaker and a freeloader, one of two misogynists Aura finds attractive. Taking advantage of Siri’s absence, Jed stretches out on her bed to read a Woody Allen book. Homage or lampoon? If it is the latter, then Dunham is reaching for something more profound than she achieves.

On the other hand, Tiny Furniture may simply be a cinematic blog chronicling the nihilism of twenty-something-year-olds. Dunham, a recent graduate of Oberlin, is 24. Her character, like the ones Woody Allen played in his “Manhattan movies,” is clearly drawn from her own life; she’s a New Yorker connected to the trendy sphere of the city through parents who are both artists. Rather than the witty, beautifully scored froth Allen produced, Tiny Furniture is fueled by valium—even when the dialogue is snide, the movie is dull. With the exception of a few visual puns, Dunham appears indifferent to framing or lighting or scoring a movie; the narrative is aimless and sometimes improbable. One bright spot is Jemima Kirke, who plays Charlotte, Aura’s high-school friend; Charlotte is a rich pothead and college dropout, yet she makes all of the other characters appear somnolent.

It’s Charlotte who may hold the key to Dunham’s movie. An Annie Hall for the Foursquare texting generation, Charlotte sometimes curates art exhibits and embodies everything Dunham excoriates in Tiny Furniture, yet she’s also the “it girl” Aura prefers over her college roommate. Beautiful, fashionable and mercurial, Charlotte is the city that never sleeps. She may represent the “furniture” of an urban lifestyle in decline, but instead of merely reflecting it as Aura does—someone named for a subtle impression—Charlotte, undeniably alluring, is a woman who defines the space she occupies. If Charlotte is not Aura’s alter-ego, she’s Dunham’s.