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.
criticWIRE Grade: B+
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published during the SXSW FIlm Festival. "Tiny Furniture" opens in theaters this Friday.