We See Chick Flicks: “Tiny Furniture”

Starring Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky, David Call

Last year I interviewed writer/director Diablo Cody, who said something which has long stuck in my mind:

“Let’s say a woman directs a movie that’s not very good — everybody piles up on her. It’s, like, ‘No! You’re representing us! It has to be perfect!’ And that’s not how it works! Women should be allowed to make bad movies. Good movies. Porno movies. Terrible made-for-TV movies. Women just need to be out there directing as many movies as men do. We don’t all have to be the model woman — what we need is to be more visible.”

The phrase “women should be allowed to make bad movies” echoed in my head as I watched “Tiny Furniture,” the flick by first-time filmmaker Lena Dunham, which was made when she was just 24.

“Tiny Furniture” is not a bad movie in the way “Transformers” or “Showgirls” are bad movies. A better description would be to say “Tiny Furniture” is an annoying movie. It’s a “coming-of-post-college-age film,” as Julie put it, where recent Oberlin graduate Lena Dunham plays herself as Aura, a recent Ohio college graduate, who moves back into her mother’s expansive Tribeca loft in downtown New York City. It just so happens to be filmed in Lena’s mother’s posh Tribeca loft in downtown New York City with her artist mother cast as Aura’s artist mother and her younger sister cast as Aura’s younger sister.

Aura, 22, spent the summer after graduating with a film theory degree assisting a professor with research, filming bizarre YouTube videos of herself, and planning to get an apartment in her hometown of New York City with her best friend from college. When she arrives back home in NYC at her mother’s swanky loft, the move is only meant to be temporary. But throughout the course of “Tiny Furniture,” Aura ends up having a temper tantrum/breakdown of sorts that causes her to cling to her mom and younger sister and move back in somewhat permanently. By day, Aura is a day hostess for $11 an hour at local restaurant Clandestino and flirting with the coupled-up, pill-popping sous chef; by night she’s trying to eke out pity sex from a cute YouTube star more famous than she is (“Niechzeian cowboy” is his opus) and begging her mom to let her crawl into bed beside her. Despite being 22 years old with a degree under her belt, Aura is just as confused as any teenager.

The Verdict: While “Tiny Furniture” has some some great dialogue (“This outfit screams, ‘I’ve been living in Ohio for four years. Take me back to your gross apartment and have sex with me!”) and Lena Dunham is absolutely a quirky screenwriter/director who I’d like to see more of in the future, the movie still had me anxious for the lights to come on so I could go home.

I do not want to come off like a raging hater, because I recognize that I, too, write about my personal life in ways that portray me as less than flattering. Who am I to judge? But that’s exactly the point: the character of Aura should be someone I empathize with — she’s young, ambitious, self-deprecating, and we walk the same NYC streets. She’s just so friggin’ privileged and whiny, though! (The New Yorker reviewed “Tiny Furniture” and aptly contextualized Lena Dunham — who attended schmancy/artist Brooklyn private school St. Ann’s before schmancy/artsy Oberlin — and her flick as belonging to “the cinema of unexamined privilege.”) Despite my many similarities to Aura/Lena, I didn’t understand what she had to be so neurotic about. Unlike neurosis-filled Woody Allen films, for instance, “Tiny Furniture” does not portray its lead as particularly endearing or her problems as particularly difficult to overcome.

As my class resentment was all worked up into a tizzy, I was at least comforted by the schadenfreude that coddled Aura had every advantage handed to her in life — living in Manhattan rent-free, well-connected parents, a college degree — but she is royally screwing it up. In the film, Aura reads her mother’s old diary entries from the ’70s and seems herself comforted by the fact her own mom was confused as a 20-something, too. That may be the filmmaker’s way of telling us that Aura — and each of us 20-somethings — has a long life ahead of us and should not despair if we, too, are the day hostess at Clandestino. But I couldn’t help compare myself to Aura, thinking: “Look, bitch, I was working full-time and paying my own rent at 22. Get it together! What’s your problem?”

But the joys of schadenfreude can only account for so much. I disliked nearly all the characters in this film (though I shouldn’t judge: her taste in men is just as bad as my own at that age) and the movie-going experience isn’t especially enjoyable when you’re irritated for two hours. The only character who I genuinely found compelling to watch onscreen was Jemima Kirke, who plays Aura’s nut job childhood friend and recovering cocaine addict, Charlotte. Even though Charlotte’s the more snottily entitled of the two, her character’s unsavory qualities are played for laughs. Aura is harder to laugh with, or at, because as a viewer I never got the sense she was learning from her mistakes: apologizing for them, but not learning from them.

The best scene in “Tiny Furniture” is when Aura and her younger sister Nadine rip each other apart in a shriek-to-the-ceilings argument: Nadine screams at Aura that she needs way too much attention and putting videos of herself on YouTube proves she’s a pathetic and desperate human being. That sentiment is exactly what I myself was feeling. The woman I saw “Tiny Furniture” with said she appreciates Lena Dunham’s willingness to put herself onscreen in this unflattering way (which made me wonder if Dunham is someone who has spent much of her life apologizing for her neuroses) and that’s something as a writer I can relate to, so I’ll give her that. So yes, the fact that “Tiny Furniture” was made when she was only 24 is an accomplishment. But here’s hoping in the future she makes better films.

[The New Yorker: Downtown’s Daughter]
[TheFader: Interview: Jemima Kirke from Tiny Furniture]