Size Matters

'Tiny Furniture' opens AFS' Best of the Fests series

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham (Photo by John Anderson)

The term "festival film" can be something of a brush-off, a ghettoizing shorthand signifying a film is too small, too unstarry to have much life outside of the festival circuit. But the Austin Film Society couldn't have made a savvier pick to kick-start its new Best of the Fests monthly series than Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture. Yup, it's small and mostly peopled with unknowns, unless the who's who of the insular New York art world is on the tip of your tongue (Dunham's mother, the artist and photographer Laurie Simmons, co-stars). But since Tiny Furniture's debut at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival (where it won the Jury Award for Narrative Feature), the 24-year-old filmmaker has become an object of interest, speculation, and Internet bitchery; The New Yorker profiled her in November, and just last week she had an HBO pilot (exec produced by Judd Apatow) picked up to series. 

Tiny Furniture is remarkable for both its ordinariness and its expertise. It's the rare mumblecore film steered entirely by a woman, but it bears most of the hallmarks of the genre – nonactors, a superlow budget, and the defining navel-gazing scope (but not a no-aesthetic; shot by Jody Lee Lipes, it actually looks quite good). Dunham, a recent Oberlin College graduate, plays Aura, a recent – you guessed it – Oberlin graduate who returns to her artist mother's loft in Tribeca, N.Y., postcollege. She's a YouTube savant, underground-famous for some arty, exhibitionist videos; newly dumped by her "male feminist" boyfriend; and utterly unsure about how to make her mark in the world or, more pressingly, how to make enough money to move out of Mom's comfy environs. She gets a job as a restaurant hostess, surely her first stab at gainful employment; she's so impressed with the accomplishment, it becomes her go-to proof that she is in fact making strides toward self-sustaining adulthood, even as she raids Mom's freezer and wine rack. Along the way, she becomes embroiled in simultaneous crushes with two blowhards, jerky in different ways, but with the same end product. 

It's a little astonishing – and exhilarating – that Dunham takes no pains at all to paint herself in a flattering light, even in material so nakedly autobiographical. Her Aura is a whinger and a layabout, and the fact that she comes from money could steel an audience against her. But, refreshingly, there's no neat arc to Aura's halfhearted self-seeking; what we're witness to is not the triumph of self-actualization, but the honest, sometimes ugly fumbling along the way. Her character is such an unusual presence – charming and aggravating in equal measures, and un-self-consciously in undies when size 6 is called plump by movie standards – that it's impossible not to cheer her for her bracingly true, if privileged, portrait of that bewildering maw between graduation and what comes after, in an up-to-the-minute accounting by a woman only barely removed from the experience. 

"I think there are inklings that [Aura] was a self-aware person before," Dunham told the Chronicle when she was in town for SXSW last March. (See "Portrait of a Breakout Artist," March 19, 2010.) "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." The happy postscript? "[I]n about six months she'll make a movie about it."

The Austin Film Society's Best of the Fests series screens Tiny Furniture on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 7pm, at the Alamo Village. See for more information.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

Yes, You Should Move to Austin
Yes, You Should Move to Austin
But only if …

Maggie Q. Thompson, March 17, 2023

It's in the Rivets: The Secret Passion of Loungefly
It's in the Rivets: The Secret Passion of Loungefly
The "geeky Gucci" designer brand makes its SXSW debut

Richard Whittaker, March 12, 2023

More Screens
Austin Artist Brings Gamera to Vibrant Life in a New Box Set
Austin Artist Brings Gamera to Vibrant Life in a New Box Set
Matt Frank builds the perfect monster

Richard Whittaker, Aug. 28, 2020

SXSW Film Reviews: 'Lunarcy!'
Daily Reviews and Interviews

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 15, 2013

More by Kimberley Jones
One Fine Morning
An intimate depiction of the weight of dementia on careers

March 24, 2023

A Good Person
Unsubtle tale of addiction and redemption raised up by great performances

March 24, 2023


Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham, SXSW, Austin Film Society, Best of the Fests, Laurie Simmons, mumblecore

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle