Tiny Furniture could have gone either way - it could have been an intelligent indie film with a certain off-beat sensibility or it could have been a distracting and annoying quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirky load. I am happy to report it is more the former than the latter.
Feeling terrifyingly autobiographical, Lena Dunham writes, direct and stars as Aura: a young woman returning home to New York after years at college in Wisconsin (or somesuchplace). She’s also just come out of a long-term college based relationship and is desperately crawling back into the warm, motherly embrace of home. Except, as so often happens when you return home, nothing is as you left it and you’re almost a stranger in your own home. Aura struggles to find a direction to her life and knocks up against her over-achieving (real-life) younger sister, her successful artist mother who lovingly tolerates her daughter’s quarter-life crisis and her own awkwardness and lack of confidence and backbone.
Aura muddles her way through getting a minimum wage job, hooking up with an old, somewhat wild and occasionally jealous, friend and attempting to put off the rest of her life. When her mother and sister take off for a tour of colleges Aura is manipulated into letting Jed – a pretentious “comedian” popular on YouTube – crash at her place for longer and longer periods of time. He’s a perfect asshole; a loafer, a liar and a manipulator. It’s frustrating the way everyone sees through him except Aura, but then there are no positive male characters in the film. Not Jed, not the hot chef at Aura’s work, not the absent father’s… But, thankfully and refreshingly, there are a plethora of strong, flawed and very real female characters.
Some performances hit the occasional bum note and come across a little flat, the direction can seem a little self-conscious and a number of points and characters are just wind-me-up frustrating but, for the most part, Tiny Furniture is a very self-confident and smart movie. There are moments of absolute cringing embarrassment, heightened by the low-fi feel to the narrative and the generally unvarnished and unflattering eye Dunham casts over herself and her family (mainly herself). It’ll have you laughing even as you twist in your seat with shared embarrassment. Too often first-time independent feature films can either be annoyingly pretentious bore-athons or barely competent genre (generally horror) exercises, so it makes for an appreciated change to see a well executed film with strong characters and intelligence behind the camera.