'Tiny Furniture' opens AFS' Best of the Fests series
By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 14, 2011
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 www.austinfilm.org for more information.