Mar. 13, 2013 - Issue #908: In Your Face
Girls, girls, girls
Reality crushes fantasy in Lena Dunham's Tiny FurnitureI can't add much to the ongoing maelstrom of dialogue about Girls—due to a lack of cable and an apathy towards torrenting I haven't actually seen an episode—but Tiny Furniture (2010), Lena Dunham's first written/produced/directed feature film certainly offers insight into why Dunham's work is presently such scrutinized territory. Tiny Furniture saw a Criterion release back in 2012, but it's also streaming on Canadian Netflix right now.
Returning home from liberal arts college, hamster in hand, Aura (Dunham) isn't so much welcomed as she is acknowledged as an interruption. In the family loft, Mom is downstairs shooting photos with her sister (both acted quite well by actual blood relations of Dunham); mom's engrossed in her work and mostly indifferent, and the sibling's got some serious snark on for her older sister.
Aura makes some fleeting attempts at independence: she gets a job hostessing, and tries to get involved with a couple of fellows (one an egotistical YouTube hit who's also an incredible mooch, the other a pill-popping cook in the restaurant she works for). But mostly, she just flails through her life while presenting the veneer of being cool and hip.
In that, Tiny Furniture seems to share a familiarity with plenty of films about privileged twentysomethings trying to find themselves, but lacks the treacly whimsy that makes most of them into cheap spectacles of forced personal growth. What Tiny Furniture does best, actually, is falter: it sets its central character adrift in reality and refuses to flinch when her internal fantasies don't play out: relationships fail to pan out; working in a restaurant after college—that fresh film studies diploma sitting unused—feels reductive; mom doesn't offer any comfort when Aura needs it (a relationship she then uses as an excuse to blow off moving in with her college friend, claiming "mom really needs me"). Yet Aura's defensive about it all, including in a squeamish scene where she turns an argument about basically being a shitty houseguest (she is) into an aggressive, overpowering plea for sympathy. Aura's having a really hard time, she frequently spouts off, but she seems content to use that excuse as a crutch for as long as she can.
Dunham's a capable actor, but it's as a director and writer that she offers the greatest nuance, highlighting how expectation/reality play out with skill and economy. The interplay of clinging to fantasy while being crushed by reality is what gives Tiny Furniture its drive, with Dunham positioning audiences as the judge over her onscreen characters; you can see people you know in them, glaring faults and all.If this is Dunham's general MO, for films and for Girls, I can see how it can frustrate people, but that's also the point—she's found the zeitgeist. Dunham's more in tune with modern living than her detractors will admit. And while there are limits to the range of exploring that, for now, it's right on the money. V
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