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Girls in the beginning

Neph Wake: Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture

Sydney-based Neph Wake is an architectural graduate, feminist and writer interested in visual culture and design.

Tiny Furniture Tiny Furniture
The difficulty of reviewing 2010’s Tiny Furniture in 2013 (just released in Australia on DVD) is that subsequent achievements and work of its writer-director-star Lena Dunham (namely the HBO show Girls and a much publicised multi-million dollar book advance) inevitably loom large over it.

Frequently cited as the work that convinced Judd Apatow to produce Girls, Tiny Furniture claimed the SXSW Film Festival Best Narrative Feature prize in 2010. Considered as a stand-alone work, the film is somewhat frustrating—all promise and no punch. As the precursor to a cult TV show and the early work of an influential filmmaker, it’s fascinating.

Like Dunham’s later work Girls, Tiny Furniture appears to be lightly fictionalised and semi-autobiographical in scope. Dunham plays Aura, a recent film theory graduate returning to her mother and sister’s New York apartment to the borderline ambivalence of both. Dunham’s artist mother, sister and house play their on-screen counterparts, which further blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography. Nursing a lightly bruised heart, Aura embraces her post-graduation ennui by haphazardly drifting into work as a host at a local restaurant, rekindling a semi-destructive childhood friendship, dabbling romantically in a semi-truncated fashion with both ‘internet famous’ Nietzschean Cowboy (Alex Karpovsky) and cute sous-chef Keith (David Call), while alienating family and friends.

Stylistically, the film is languid and thankfully eschews the strangely angled shots and experimental cutting techniques one might expect from a 23-year-old director. The gently wafting score of Teddy Blanks and assured cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes complement Dunham’s keen ear for dialogue and eye for the absurd in daily life. In the vein of Seinfeld and Woody Allen (both self-consciously referenced), and with a nod to the lo-fi naturalistic dialogue of ‘mumblecore,’ Tiny Furniture is not so much a plotted linear narrative as a collection of observations gathered from the viewpoint of a particular cultural time and place. Aura’s crippling lack of direction and ambition are given space to breathe rather than being arbitrarily used to drive a plot forward. The result is assembled into a collage onto which audiences can project their own meaning.

The film’s best passages are those that include family interactions, which enable Dunham’s strength with dialogue and fearlessness as an actor to show. Sadly, even as individual scenes shine (for example a scene in which Aura’s younger sister arrives in the middle of a fight between Aura and her mother only to snicker is one that siblings everywhere will recognise), the whole ensemble is less than the sum of its parts. Promising ideas thread through the film—Aura’s compulsive reading of her mother’s journals from the same life stage—but they jostle with more clichéd elements such as using asexual nudity as a proxy for vulnerability, or the funny-tragic death of a pet. As a result, the film feels uneven. Most frustratingly, intriguing characters emerge in Aura’s life but have no room to grow and so drop out of sight and relevance. The result is that even well realised characters feel like caricatures. Of these, Jemima Kirke shines as childhood friend and inspirational hot mess Charlotte (an earlier incarnation of Jessa played by the same actor on Girls).

Overall, Aura and Tiny Furniture are much less ambitious than Hannah and Girls. Made on a low budget (reported variously as between $25,000 and $50,000) the narrow framing and smaller scale are the film’s strengths. While the film, like Girls, has an overwhelmingly white cast drawn from Dunham’s personal network, the tighter focus of the film on the home life of a single character excuses this to a large degree.

Tiny Furniture is clear on what it is not. The film doesn’t frame Aura’s sexual dalliances as a proxy for a larger commentary on gender relations; there is no grand soliloquy on economic opportunities, or a catalysing moment through which Aura achieves anything like self-awareness or personal growth (although the mere existence of the film indicates very clearly that its creator has). Refreshingly, the film is free of moralising: it neither condemns nor celebrates the effects of wealth and drugs, instead it merely presents a world in which people have differing levels of access to both.

Overall, it’s worth a look, but it won’t sustain repeat viewing. If you like Girls, you’ll enjoy seeing the subtle differences and tracing how the bones of the ideas explored here evolved in a different format. If you don’t, you’ll see the same frustrating self-involvement on display. Creative professionals are often forced to mature professionally in the public eye, with their early work just a quick Google search away. Here, Lena Dunham need not worry—the film is exactly what it should be: the first steps of an intriguing filmmaker.


Tiny Furniture, writer-director Lena Dunham, cinematography Jody Lee Lipes, music Teddy Blanks, Transmission DVD, www.transmissionfilms.com.au

Sydney-based Neph Wake is an architectural graduate, feminist and writer interested in visual culture and design.

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 22

© Neph Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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