In what I had thought was a wholly unique experience, I spent my initial post-graduation days at home in limbo, unsure of where I was heading or if I’d even get started on that journey. But now it appears that it wasn’t just me, as Jill of all trades Lena Dunham draws on that precise situation and feeling in her breakthrough film, Tiny Furniture. This 2010 film, which won best narrative feature at South by Southwest and best first screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, has finally found its way to DVD and Blu ray thanks to the Criterion Collection.
After graduating from college in Ohio, Aura Freeman (Dunham) returns to her New York City home to live with her mother Siri (actual mother Laurie Simmons) and younger sister Nadine (actual sister Grace Dunham). Neither particularly care that she’s come back, and the more into the film we get, it becomes clear that they treat Aura’s presence as more of a burden. In a strange — and fitting for the purposes of this story — coincidence, Siri and Nadine look like each other and don’t resemble Aura physically all that much. It’s almost like Aura was adopted. One has to wonder if Lena herself ever feels that way.
She also gets back in touch with her old friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who she’s known practically forever (but from the pronounced British accent, it’s clear that she has spent the more crucial formative years of her life in that land). She is brasher than Aura and, by her own admission, has a greater sense of entitlement. It is through Charlotte that she gets a job as a restaurant hostess. Soon her eye gets caught on fellow employee Keith (David Call). He says he has a girlfriend at the moment, but that hardly lessens her liking.
Another new man friend she meets is Jed (Alex Karpovsky), who she actually knew of before from his videos on YouTube. In a series of skits called “The Nietzschean Cowboy,” he waxes philosophic while bobbing back and forth on a rocking horse. He doesn’t live in the city; he is visiting to try to pitch his ideas to networks. When her family is away for a week, she invites him to stay over. It’s an attempt on her part to try to bond, and it seems to work. That is, until her mother and sister return.
What makes Tiny Furniture engaging is that it’s made by someone in touch in with what it means to be a young person in this era, but with a level of skill of someone much older. The movie looks absolutely fantastic; I would never have guessed it was made for only $25,000. Compositions of shots are done well and the use of color is very striking. In particular, the blinding whiteness of the walls in the home reinforces her purgatorial present. Similarly, the gray of the pipe she and Keith later find themselves in for a special encounter serves to enhance the emptiness they characters later feel coming out of it.
Dunham has certainly done a great job at writing and directing here, but I feel that there’s too little talk of what a great acting job she does. Aura is magnificently portrayed by her, and while no doubt autobiographical in some degree, comes across as a character all her own. The shining moment is the kitchen argument with her mother. It’s relatively lengthy shot and Dunham manages to capture what Aura is feeling in this moment perfectly, even when acting opposite her actual mother who (I would hope) she has never been that way toward.
Although I’m swept up in Dunhamania (yes, that was just coined by me right now), I do feel that one crucial component was not addressed: economic troubles and poor job markets. We never see Aura try for a job within her field and then failing that has to work as a hostess. The most that is shown in this regard is that her paycheck is dismally small. Without that, it feels less relevant to this particular troubled time and ignores a key problem of many recent graduates.
This is actually the second feature film from Dunham. The first, Creative Nonfiction, is an extra. Made during her college years, it also stars Dunham and focuses on her character’s relationships with her friends while trying to come up with a story idea for a movie. The production values are certainly lower than Tiny Furniture, but some of the elements can be seen shaping up here. So too are they present in the four Dunham short films which are also extras. The other extras are Dunham’s introduction to Creative Nonfiction, a half hour conversation between her and Nora Ephron, an interview with Paul Schrader, the trailer for Tiny Furniture, and a booklet with an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.
We’ll be seeing more of Dunham, as her TV show Girls (also with Kirke) will be on HBO soon. But Tiny Furniture shows that she has big screen magic in her, and her next effort there is greatly anticipated.