“Tiny Furniture” (2010), fresh air
20 January 2011
“Oh, you look so pretty!” coos one of Aura’s old friends as she walks into a party — a line that drips with fake flattery. Aura (Lena Dunham) responds, “Oh, are you serious? I feel like this outfit just screams, like, ‘I’ve been living in Ohio for four years — take me back to your gross apartment and have sex with me.'” She has returned home to New York after graduating from college; in Tiny Furniture, writer-director Dunham tells the tale of being a 23-year-old adrift by highlighting her sense of disjunction with this world, a New York that seems as cold and hermetic as the miniature furniture Aura’s mother photographs in tiny scenarios. Tiny Furniture is a comedy, but it’s also a mood film akin to Sofia Coppola’s work — a film about what it means to be young, gifted, and dreaming of connection.
Maybe her Ohio college encouraged Aura’s earnestness and wry self-deprecation, but it’s clear they’ve always been part of her personality — and both tendencies are out of place in New York. Part of her sense of alienation is physical: her pudgy body contrasts with her mother’s and sister’s tall, willowy elegance (and Dunham loves to exaggerate with slumped shoulders and unflattering scenes of wandering the apartment in a t-shirt and underwear). Making it worse is the fact that her family doesn’t quite welcome her back with open arms; in Aura’s absence the two seem to have formed a tight bond that now feels exclusive, even chilly. Aura’s true sense of difference, however, comes from her desire to be an artist like her successful photographer mother and prizewinning poet sister — yet with only 357 hits on her YouTube video and a liberal-arts college degree in film theory, where does she start to find a path to artistic success? Her New York friends are tragically hip, glamorous, and decidedly unambitious; in fact, they seem to view ambition as the road to public humiliation, so they sit back and observe the world instead. Like so many recent college grads who move back home, Aura skirts the issue of her own dreams by getting a stupid job at a restaurant, going to parties with old friends, and drifting.
Then there are the boys. Aura’s longtime college boyfriend just dumped her — “something about having to build a shrine to his ancestors out of a dying tree” back home in Colorado, she explains with self-deprecating skepticism — and the New York options get worse the more we get to know them. She develops a crush on the restaurant’s hot chef (above), who only notices her intermittently and seems to see her primarily as a source of prescription painkillers. Then there’s Jed (below), an artist with a minor YouTube following for his Nietzschean Cowboy video despite its dubious contribution to the world of performance art. Jed coyly indicates he’s visiting New York for meetings with agents and producers, yet he has no money, no place to stay, and no clear interest in Aura. When she hears of him, Aura burbles, “He’s a little bit famous,” to which her more cool, cosmopolitan New York friend responds dismissively, “Yeah, I guess, in, like, an internet kind of way.” Plowing ahead with her aimless hopefulness, Aura invites Jed to stay in the apartment when her mother and sister depart on a college tour.
Critics have rightfully sung the praises of Dunham’s funny script — which only very occasionally suffers from a bit too much of a 23-year-old’s eagerness to include all her funny observations of stilted interactions — but for me it was the cinematography that marks the film’s best achievement. The filming does such a great service in marking the story’s contrasts. We faintly perceive that Aura’s mother’s apartment is one of those rare, extraordinarily huge and sunny New York spaces only possessed by the very wealthy and those who purchased real estate in the very distant past — yet the film portrays it as sterile, windowless, a sea of white paint and forbidding minimalism. The rare exterior shots are almost jarring when we realize there might be an outdoor urban world to be enjoyed; Aura’s one chance for sex takes place in a grimly awful enclosed space in an abandoned lot. Between those shots and the closed-off emotions of the New Yorkers around her, Aura appears even more a breath of fresh air utterly out of place. And that freshness goes for much more than her terrific sense of humor. The last time I saw a female protagonist onscreen with an imperfect body was in Precious (2009), a film that sought to make a very different point. Dunham plays this role with a determination to show how much her character feels physically and emotionally stymied by New Yorkers’ svelte, arch coolness. This is the film Greenberg could have been if it hadn’t been so determined to humiliate women.
Tiny Furniture is the kind of film I’m looking for as a feminist — written and directed by a woman, featuring a story about a woman that doesn’t limit her to romance or a rape scenario, and going in unexpected narrative directions. 2010 seems to have been a good year for women in film, but as Melissa Silverstein’s facts about the numbers of women in film show, there’s still a long way to go. Good thing that Lena Dunham is now only 24 and has a lot more films left in her.