Judge Patrick Rogers sleeps in a tiny bed, his ginormous head resting on a tiny pillow.
Aura would like you to know that she's having a really hard time.
Tiny Furniture is a hard film to love and an easy one to hate. If you always expect the main character to be lovable or a paragon of maturity, you should probably just stay away.
Facts of the Case
After graduating with a degree in film studies, Aura (Lena Dunham, The Innkeepers) has just moved back to her mom's (Laurie Simmons) upscale New York City apartment. When she sees how well her mom and little sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), have gotten along without her, Aura begins to feel left out and under-appreciated. Her love life fares no better, with options that include a nerdy dweeb who posts pseudo-intellectual videos on YouTube (Alex Karpovsky, Beeswax) or an entitled sous-chef with a horribly ironic mustache (David Call, Did You Hear About The Morgans?). Once you strip away the hipster sheen, neither is particularly special…then again, Aura isn't either.
As she uncovers one of her mom's old journals, Aura begins to see that her mom (now a successful artist) was just as lost and indecisive as she is now. While it's easy to identify your flaws and what you need to do to fix them, breaking bad habits is much more difficult.
The most common compliment being thrown writer/director/actor Lena Dunham is that she's the Woody Allen for a new generation. It's not a comparison Dunham herself would hide, considering one of her characters is constantly reading a Woody Allen book. While I'm not a fan of oversimplifying things for the sake of familiarity—especially since Woody Allen has not been relevant for two decades, no matter what Midnight in Paris fans may believe—it's actually a fitting surface comparison. However, once you dig a bit deeper, Dunham isn't trying to explore urban neurosis and Jewish psychoanalysis as much as she's trying to put to form those post college years of debilitating anxiety and uncertainty while also trying to expose the inherent phoniness of hipsterdom. It's still in the same wheelhouse as Allen, in terms of overall tone and the way Aura acts as a mirror for Dunham herself, but Woody never attempted it with such specificity.
Filled material all of us can relate to, Tiny Furniture is not as smug and on-the-nose as a Woody Allen film. After a childhood of being assured that earning a degree guarantees financial success and stability, we leave the safety of college only to find out that reality is harsh and unforgiving. You're no different than a thousand other people, you have no distinguishing features, your resume does not standout, your experience almost non-existent, and your chance of anyone giving you a shot at anything is close to zero.
Dunham has masterfully captured the debilitating sense of uncertainty that comes with being thrust into the world with no sense of direction; who you are, what you want to be, and where to start. The fact that Aura comes from a privileged family living in an upper-class New York City apartment only slightly diminishes the impact.
Tiny Furniture is a modern day masterpiece of humble origins many people will absolutely abhor. You can criticize it as a glacially-paced narrative where nothing of importance happens. You can say it's full of pseudo-intellectual, urban characters who are as annoyingly whiny as they are self-important. You can even say the film has a thoroughly hipster sheen coating every last inch of the mise en scène. And it's all true. Aura has a painful sense of entitlement. She's lazy, we have a hard time believing any decision she makes as being a good one, she believes herself to be more talented and intelligent than she truly is, and her two love interests are lethally smug bastards with no redeeming qualities.
Though the performances are far from amazing, those who would use that as a critique of the film have heinously missed the point. Dunham is neither embracing these characteristics and sentiments, nor is she condemning them. She is simply recapitulating the culture, mindset, and everyday routine of your average twentysomething with nothing to call their own. Aura is a narcissistic and selfish character without answers, and that's refreshing to see. We're not perfect, we rarely have a good head on our shoulders, and we feel as though the world should recognize our brilliance and reward us for it even if we're kind of ignorant and bland.
Dunham wants to hold a mirror up to our generation and remind people the transition from childhood to adulthood is not as easy or unrestricted as movies have led us to believe, and we're not as special as our families have always told us. She wants to bring us back to reality and (in some small part) examine the roots of the neurosis and arrested development that haunt our generation. Our lives aren't filled with action and excitement. There are no third act twists, no burning romances set to consume the world. There are no heroes, no villains, no drastic character progression, and enlightenment sure as hell doesn't happen in a montage. We suffer, we make mistakes, and we constantly shy away from making impactful decisions. We're also the future of the world, so hold on tight.
Shot with the Canon EOS 7D HDSLR camera—an amazing little camera that will surely change the face of independent filmmaking—Criterion's Blu-ray release of Tiny Furniture looks absolutely incredible. Detail on the 2.35:1/1080p high definition transfer is razor sharp with crystal clear clarity. When focusing on Aura's spacial confines, Jody Lee Lipes' (Martha Marcy May Marlene) cinematography is dripping with vibrant color, distancing the sterile whites of Aura's mother's studio. While the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio wont blow you away, the dialogue is crisp and the soundtrack has a beautiful buoyancy in the rear channels.
Criterion has loaded up this release with some great special features. There's a 30-minute interview with Lena Dunham discussing her history and filmmaking process and a brief interview with legendary writer/director Paul Schrader (Cat People) discussing his love of Tiny Furniture. We also get our of Dunham's short films, and her 2009 feature film debut Creative Nonfiction; all are a little rough around the edges in execution and thematic sense, but they still offer a great insight into her mind and the recurring issues she wishes to explore. The package is rounded out with a trailer for the film, and a booklet which contains a great little essay by Phillip Lopate that explores the contextual themes of Tiny Furniture through the lens of film theory.
I'm the perfect audience for Tiny Furniture, easily identifying with Aura and her plight. Some will be turned off by the film's slow pace and its thoroughly amateur acting. Others will hate its vain and self-important characters, and an ending that gives no closure and no hope. But ultimately its story will touch anyone who's ever found themselves struggling to understand their place in the world, once stripped from the safety of adolescence.
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