Midway through “Tiny Furniture,” writer-director-star Lena Dunham launches into a monologue — a tantrum, really — that smacks of a tin ear. The plaintive wails seem ginned up for “dramatic effect,” though the real effect is to undercut the film’s poignant understanding of how scary “coming-of-age” sounds to those going through it. Dunham’s talent, as her sophomore effort reveals, is for rendering emotion with uncanny specificity: Even if the motions are all wrong from time to time, the feelings behind them are exactly right. (TOH’s video interview with Dunham is here.)
“Tiny Furniture” (available tomorrow on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection) features Dunham as Aura, a film-school graduate returning home to New York City and a life tenuously poised between endings and new beginnings. Her mother is an artist, her sister an overachiever prepping college applications and studying for standardized tests — in short, Aura is surrounded by women who by any measure have their shit together. Aura does not.
From this admittedly slight premise, a roman à clef of Dunham’s personal experiences (her own mother and sister play her mother and sister in the film), she cannily builds a precise, funny, and unsparing depiction of that generation of young people who happened to come into the real world just as it seemed to be collapsing around us. I say “us” because I entered my senior year of college in late 2008, only to see the markets tumble and the jobs dry up, and that experience is central to Dunham’s vision. There are plenty of films that get at the general ennui of the modern twenty-something, but very few that apprehend so exactly the elements of fear, stark sexuality and bad temper that come with it, particularly when mixed with broken promises and failed idealism.
That assessment may sound melodramatic, but in fact “Tiny Furniture” avoids anything so heavy in favor of Aura’s myriad mistakes and embarrassments. Such a tone feels right to me, because we don’t much talk about what went wrong, rather preferring the heady mix of over-intimacy and jokiness that Dunham nails time and again. But the heaviness is there, in the raw nerves that spark Aura’s tantrums, in the callousness that marks the film’s relationships, both Platonic and sexual, old and new. Even the film’s visual palette of whites and creams feels like a reproach, a blank canvas on which those of us of a certain age have yet to do any real work.
I say this not as a complaint (the most curious aspect of being young is the clearly wrongheaded feeling that no one has ever felt this way before), but to suggest why “Tiny Furniture” speaks to a style of filmmaking with deeper currents than, say, “Garden State.” Zach Braff’s directorial debut came like a bolt of lightning in 8th grade, full of angst I was just then beginning to feel, but now it seems twee to me, pat in its ultimate assurance that love will carry the day. “Tiny Furniture,” as funny and slim as it is, bubbles with the riptides of dissatisfaction. It asks many questions, and doesn’t claim to have any of the answers.
This bodes well for Dunham’s new series, “Girls,” which debuts at SXSW just before its HBO premiere April 15. Executive produced by the prolific Judd Apatow, the teasers for the new show suggest Dunham’s alt-actual persona has been given a bit of a premium-cable shine. In “Tiny Furniture” she looks perpetually haggard, flyaways of hair thrusting in every direction. Her clothes are rumpled, thrown together in a paisley of colors and patterns that cry out “I’m unique,” so as to fit in with the crowd. Joined here by Allison Williams and Jemima Kirke (who plays Aura’s friend Charlotte in “Tiny Furniture” with a delicious snark that would give the Dowager Countess of Grantham a run for her money), Dunham has polish and assurance to go along with the frankness and self-doubt.
Comparisons are already being drawn to “Sex and the City,” a show that for all its bawdiness never struck me as the (post-) feminist credo that others have claimed it to be. If Dunham’s two features — the other is essentially a student film, “Creative Nonfiction,” which is featured on the Criterion disc and contains the germ of her latest film’s artistic success — are any indication, “Girls” will be fiercer and more serious than “Sex.” One can only hope that the polishing doesn’t dull Dunham’s sharp edge. That would be cause for a tantrum.