Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2
The Criterion Collection’s release of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture has been met with much consternation from a certain type of cinephile. Dunham – the argument goes – is too young, too amateurish and too privileged to receive the imprimatur of the venerated DVD label, especially with her first film. For many basement-dwelling film theorists, the Criterion label is sacrosanct – the equivalent of cinematic sainthood – and Dunham’s inclusion represents a type of apostasy.
I first caught up with Tiny Furniture after reading all the outraged blog posts (about a year before the actual DVD release) and braced myself for the worst. It wasn’t bad. Then, a year later, I received the reviled DVD in the mail and – before my second viewing – dove deep into the disc’s ample extras.
The disc is a full-tilt descent into the ego of a 25-five-year-old. Dunham waxes on about the “overtly political” Youtube shorts that first got her noticed (four of which appear on the disc), discusses her filmmaking “philosophy” (“I know as much as I need to to function”), and lovingly introduces her nearly unwatchable, hour-long student film.
This film (Creative Nonfiction) does, indeed, represent a sort of Criterion Collection nadir – watching it is a bad film school flashback; amateurishness posing as vanguard innovation, self-absorption aiming for endearment. Dunham opines that her early work represents “the things you can only do at eighteen because you don’t know what the rules are.” I’d venture to say that these “things” turned out the way they did because she didn’t know the first thing about what she was doing. I scribbled something about “high-school quality” filmmaking in my notes but that’s unkind to high-schoolers.
Rounding out the disc’s Dunham hagiography is an insufferable love-fest/discussion between Dunham and Nora Ephron, a well-articulated defense of Furniture by Paul Schrader, and an almost apologetic essay by Phillip Lopate (“comedy evolves,” Lopate hopefully offers).
So. All this is prologue to say that I very much expected to loathe my second viewing of Tiny Furniture. And I didn’t. Divorced from the disc’s extras and any snooty cinephile baggage, Tiny Furniture is a winsome enough film. It’s fitfully humorous, well shot (while not epic, the mise-en-scene belies its alleged $45,000 price tag), and – most importantly – self-assured in a non-obnoxious way.
Tiny Furniture tells a shop-worn tale: Aura (writer/director Lena Dunham) graduates college and returns home to flounder in the sticky comfort of her childhood home. In this case, Aura’s childhood home happens to be a luxury Tribeca loft and her mom (played by Dunham’s mother, Laurie Simmons) is a wealthy, respected conceptual artist. Needless to say, Dunham’s tale of post-graduate angst is not exactly relatable on a socio-economic level. But neither was Ben Braddock’s in The Graduate and it’s not fair to hold Dunham/Aura’s wealth against her. The crux of the story -- detailing those awkward months between theoretical adulthood and the real thing – is what matters.
Aura’s return home finds her rekindling old friendships, fumbling through romances with two different boorish hipsters, and hesitating to make that next move. She floats through a transitional, meaningless job, fights with her younger and more upwardly mobile sister, and hesitates to commit to the unsheltered world outside her family life.
With Tiny Furniture, Dunham has created the ne plus ultra of the mumblecore “movement”, a hi-fi rendition of all the petty, “First World” anxieties of a certain class of people. While that’s not the most noble or original mission statement for a filmmaker, Dunham has clearly found her footing with this film. The shot composition is light years beyond that of a Joe Swanberg (or even Mark Duplass) and the script is breezy enough to avoid self-seriousness. This is well-covered territory (most recently in Brad Gray’s superior Exploding Girl) but Dunham brings her own experience into it and the result is a fine, if slight, film.
“Regret is a complete waste of time,” Aura’s mother tells her. “I never think about my twenties and I absolutely don’t look back.” Hopefully Dunham will do the same and use the attention garnered by Tiny Furniture to explore bigger ideas.
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