This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.
Honestly, “Tiny Furniture” should be intolerable. It’s about post-college malaise, the type of topic that becomes exponentially harder to relate to as you get distance on it. It’s about the added doldrums of figuring out a career when you come from the kind of privileged background where you’re not actually required to get one, which is the type of topic that’s hard to relate to at all. And it’s semi-autobiographical, with writer/director Lena Dunham starring as Aura and her mother and sister playing Aura’s artist mother and younger sibling, respectively, a set-up that implies all sorts of navel-gazing self-indulgence.
That’s it’s not at all intolerable — it’s actually quite funny and charming — is thanks to Dunham’s nigh-majestic lack of vanity. Aura, who’s moved back into her mother’s ridiculously hip all-white Tribeca loft after four years of college in Ohio, is a doughy mass of uncertainty, defensiveness and neediness. Her undergrad boyfriend broke up with her to head home to a nouveau hippy life in Colorado, her only friend in New York is Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a chain-smoking, needy flake in search of a sidekick, and her overachieving sister and impatient mother are too consumed with their own lives to give her the attention she feels she deserves. Aura loafs around the apartment, not bothering to wear pants. Her mother gently suggests she take a shower. She finds a job as the “day hostess” at a restaurant that isn’t actually open during the day — she’s basically a receptionist, answering the phone for $11 an hour.
Aura’s problem is that she doesn’t have what most people would consider a problem — her life is so comfortable, her dilemmas so luxurious (she explains that she doesn’t want to go into the art world, because that’s her mother’s territory, but effortlessly ends up with a YouTube video in a show in DUMBO anyway) that no one will sympathize with the fact that she feels genuinely lost and depressed. She latches on to two men so openly disastrous that her interactions with them have a sort of comedic suspense — which will mistreat her first?
There’s Jed (Alex Karpovsky), the passive aggressive, freeloading would-be comedian (“He kind of a big deal on YouTube,” she tells someone) who ends up crashing with her while rebuffing her awkward romantic overtures. And there’s Keith (David Call), the sous chef at the restaurant with the high cheekbones and the girlfriend troubles, who’ll flirt and offer comradely complaints about the sleaziness of the other employees, but who ends up being just as much of an asshole.
Aura’s vulnerability and the often bitingly funny series of humiliations that stem from it make her sympathetic, but she also does some awful things — screwing over a good friend, stealing her mother’s diary, brandishing an off-putting sense of entitlement. It’s a disarmingly open performance, and it’s not one capped with an obvious comeuppance. I don’t know that I buy the film’s underlying intimation that all women succumb to and learn to navigate internal storms of self-doubt and identity crises through their 20s (itself a kind of privilege) but I like that Aura isn’t necessarily on a firmer path at the film’s close, and that the lessons she’s learned aren’t necessarily good ones. As Charlotte tosses off, “no one’s financially independent until they’re at least 25. Or 30!” It could be that Aura has a long way to go before becoming a fully functioning human being — if she does.
“Tiny Furniture” opens in limited release November 12th.