Portrait of a Breakout Artist: Lena Dunham on Tiny Furniture

The first-time filmmaker discusses her SXSW jury award-winner

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham (Photo by John Anderson)

In Tiny Furniture, writer/director Lena Dunham stars as Aura, a recent film grad transitioning between college and adulthood. With little more than a plan to rent an apartment with her friend Frankie (Nurse Jackie's Merritt Wever), she returns home to her mother's fashionable Tribeca loft to reflect on the questionable usefulness of her degree, her nonexistent love life, and her few employment options.

The film empathetically portrays Aura as she struggles with all the common challenges that privileged art grads face – albeit with a wink. "It was very hard to know how to introduce people into the movie and clue them into what the tone is," Dunham said, sitting down with the Chronicle on the eve of Tiny Furniture's world premiere. It's her second film to show at South by Southwest in as many years; her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, screened in the Emerging Visions sidebar in 2009.

"I think audiences, myself included, like to know what they're getting into. When you can't offer that clearly, it can be a confusing viewing experience. So I hope that the comedy and drama [in Tiny Furniture] were not only blended seamlessly, but in some ways enriched each other." Its newly awarded SXSW Jury Award for best narrative feature should put to rest those initial concerns over the film's success in balancing comedic and dramatic elements. And indeed, moments in the film simultaneously spawn laughter and compassion – like when we learn that Aura's first love, whom she describes as a "male feminist," broke up with her for Burning Man.

Laurie Simmons and Grace Dunham, Dunham's real-life mother and sister, play Siri and Nadine, Aura's sister and mother. Though the film has many autobiographical elements, Dunham said it does not recount verbatim her post-graduation days. "It's scripted as a cinematic story and not just a restaging of events. There are characters who are based on people. There are characters who are composite characters. But it is largely taken from my own experiences and people close to me."

The film's plot unfolds as Aura, looking for help with her own identity, starts reading her mother's old journals and indulging the whims of indifferent male acquaintances and her spoiled childhood friend Charlotte (played by Jemima Kirke). "She gives everything she has away," Dunham said. "She wants someone to tell her who she is. And if you're looking hard for someone to give you an identity, you'll open yourself up and give away all the best parts of you." Producer Alicia Van Couvering identified that as a mark of Aura's adolescence, which the film contrasts against her mother's strength of character. "[Aura]'s mother doesn't reveal herself to anyone," Van Couvering said. "She's so confident and self-possessed. Aura tells everyone everything all the time. Part of wanting to be like her mother is learning to keep what's yours yours – learning to keep some secrets – which is part of growing up."

The film ends without clear resolution, but not void of new direction. "I think there are inklings that she was a self-aware person before. That she has had that sort of self-knowledge in the past and that she's a little bit blinded by her change of circumstance," said Dunham. "And in about six months she'll make a movie about it."

Tiny Furniture

Narrative Feature, Narrative Competition

Saturday, March 20, 11:30am, G-Tech

Saturday, March 20, 4:15pm, Ritz 2

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Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture, Alicia Van Couvering, Merrit Wever, Creative Nonfiction, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham

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