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by Eric Kohn
March 16, 2010 2:54 AM
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REVIEW | Blossoming "Furniture": Lena Dunham Entertaining Self-Portrait

A scene from Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture." Image courtesy of SXSW.

On a purely creative level, a movie generally should be absorbed without foreknowledge of its back story, but Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" is defined by it. Dunham's lightly entertaining self-portrait, in which the director plays a version of herself wandering around New York City in post-graduate limbo, magnifies her pedestrian troubles in a deeply personal fashion. The director's own mother and teenage sister play versions of themselves, while many of the offbeat situations throughout the story were culled from her own recent experiences. Like Azazel Jacobs's "Momma's Man," the movie fictionalizes real life with the aid of an observant screenplay. Whereas Dunham's first feature, "Creative Nonfiction," felt like a rough outline of the design for providing a window into her world, "Tiny Furniture" scrutinizes it with everyday nuances. The story has a natural, familiar rhythm to it, even when it seems like the pacing slows down to let the characters breath. It's first-person filmmaking in narrative terms.

As Aura, a twenty-year old grad dealing with the aftermath of a breakup and a seemingly impractical degree in academic film studies, Dunham plays a major complainer with little to complain about. She's clearly smart but hardly motivated. Holed up at her photographer mother's fancy Tribeca loft, Aura drifts around her aimless existence, hanging with her old childhood friend at parties and ambivalently taking on a service job. She meets a traveling animator (Alex Karpovsky) and lets him crash with her, yielding an awkwardly non-romantic situation in which she simply gains a hapless roommate. Although it moves forward with conventional storytelling momentum, "Tiny Furniture" is mainly defined by the chemistry that Dunham shares with the various characters in her life, none of which seem to view her cuvrrent state of being as entirely positive. The antecedent to this type of portrait is probably "Annie Hall," although Aura generally tends to complain about her own life without veering into deep canyons of intellectual pontification. That's a good thing.

Aided by smooth urban photography by Jody Lee Lipes ("NY Export: Opus Jazz," "Afterschool"), "Tiny Furniture" is easy on the eye and sustained by its ubiquitous charm. Instead of building to a climax, the movie simply completes its portraiture. Aura's family and friends sometimes seem like a collective symbol of her mismanaged life, although at other times they melt in the shadow of her discontent. This makes for a mixed bag: Dunham invest the full weight of her personality in the performance, but her angst can be overbearing after awhile. However, that in itself points to the real life factor, testifying to Dunham's willingness to reveal herself on camera.

But "Tiny Furniture" works because the production values maintain a certain precision that transcends the meandering nature of the plot. Dunham and her family engage in emotionally charged confrontations that retain legitimacy because they arise naturally from the circumstances at hand. If any single ingredient wavered slightly -- say, the introduction of shaky camera work or unrehearsed, overly improvised dialogue -- "Tiny Furniture" would easily careen into the dangerous territory often consigned to lazy depictions of American youth in contemporary independent film. Yet even if the movie slightly overstays its welcome, Aura's life never grows tedious. Instead, it blossoms.

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6 Comments

  • The Ghost of Tom Joad | November 7, 2010 8:53 AMReply

    This movie is the work of clearly talented and charming girl with absolutely zero knowledge of (or interest in) the world beyond her tiny section of Manhattan upper class comfort (that she's still so "angsty" about). Too bad she hasn't put her talents to better use or had the life experience to inform her story with something other than her own neuroses. Movies that glorify the struggles of rich white girls aren't my bag, but clearly there's plenty of indie film writers for whom that's a perfectly interesting approach to this subject matter A pity.

  • D.E.Ortega | March 27, 2010 5:23 AMReply

    Reading the comments alone, the various phrases in debate might sound convoluted, but having read the piece, further context wasn't necessary. Great work Eric. I made a list of things I liked at SXSW here: http://www.theauteurs.com/lists/6385

  • eric.kohn | March 18, 2010 2:42 AMReply

    Granted, the handy dictionary was a bit of a sarcastic device. But for the record: CREATIVE NONFICTION is rough, and it is a window into Dunham's world. So there's real meaning to the phrase you see as convoluted.

  • brant | March 17, 2010 10:42 AMReply

    I think the point hardy jenns makes is that you shouldn't have to provide a handy dictionary for the ineptly incorporated turns of phrases in your writing. The sentences should function without needing interpretation. "Smooth urban photography" doesn't bother me so much, but, yes, "a rough outline of the design for providing a window..." is an incredibly convoluted phrase that an actual editor would have corrected.

  • hardy jenns | March 17, 2010 8:08 AMReply

    Phrases in this review that don't really make any sense and/or are too vague:

    "smooth urban photography"
    "the real life factor"
    "a rough outline of the design for providing a window into her world"

    Thank you.

  • eric.kohn | March 17, 2010 7:57 AMReply

    hardy jenns: Here's a personalized dictionary to help with your confusion:

    "Smooth urban photography": Competently executed cinematography depicting New York City

    "The real life factor": This phrase is used in reference to the way Dunham's character grows annoying after some time, which generally happens when you're around certain people for lengthy periods. At least in my own experience.

    "a rough outline of the design for providing a window into her world": Dunham's first feature, "Creative Nonfiction," lacked strong production values and barely lasted an hour. It feels less like a completed movie than an extended short film, but it does success at letting us feel like we've been given an intimate glimpse into Dunham's day-to-day existence.

    Hope this helps.