Tiny Furniture, a new film by Lena Dunham
One of the great paradoxes found in a city as big and vibrant as New York is that despite its myriad of public services, crowded streets, glaring lights, bountiful opportunities, and 24-7-365 mindset, the people, the human creatures zigzagging around like frenetic specks amid stone and steel towers, are oftentimes lonely and lost.
Lena Dunham wrote, directed, and portrays the lead in Tiny Furniture, a highly effective film that zeroes in on one of those New York City specks and holds the magnifying glass painfully close.
In her movie she is Aura, a plain, shapeless, unmotivated recent college graduate who returns home to unwind and regroup before stumbling blindly toward the next stage in her stunted evolution. Living at home and acting as a physical affront to her aimlessness are her slender, tall, overachieving sister (the kind of person that does crunches while reading philosophy) and successful photographer-artist mother (who specializes in shooting body parts surrounded by miniature beds, chairs, and dressers, hence the title). Both mother and sister, viscerally offended by Aura’s weak by comparison persona, communicate with her only in distant, nouveau-intellectual phraseology. Although a foundation of fondness (or is it merely tolerance?) lies somewhere beneath the surface, they simply appear tired and bored with one another. The family’s ability to connect in a meaningful way is to a significant degree absent and the film leaves us to wonder whether things have always been this way or did something traumatic happen (possibly relating to a father who is nowhere to be found).
The duplex where they live in Tribeca is white from floorboards, to walls, to ceiling. Colorless and cold and unfeeling, but for Aura, who quite possibly does not know any better, it is home. So we feel for Aura when she clings to a nest that unconsciously rejects her (most heartbreaking when she attempts to sleep in the comforts of her mother’s bed). We empathize and cringe when she time and again is degraded by worthless men who represent the best she can do. We are saddened by her troubles at work, her fruitless, vacant searches for romance, friendship, and familial affection. Dunham, an exquisite writer of real but entertaining dialogue, never asks us to like or excuse Aura’s somewhat repellant character, however, we are urged to understand her, perhaps feel compassion, maybe even outright pity her. Because although she is responsible for her choices and actions as any adult would be, she is the product of a New York City that has kept her a child.
In that sense, Dunham’s film is a character study of New York (well, a certain, intricately defined New York) as much as it of Aura. Tiny Furniture’s New York is the kind that many would argue is authentic and essential, but at the same time ripe for judgment based on its methodological failures. It is a New York expressed by a culture of privileged brats with liberal, absentee (likely Jewish) parents who retain too much experience and sophistication for their own good. A generation of hipster kids raised so cavalierly by self-involved individuals, with such expectations of accomplishment and promises of liberty, that the net result is children who never focus, and enter early adulthood without ambition or purpose. And even if they manage to escape adolescence sane and secure, if they then do not become the writer, poet, painter, dancer, model or whatever art form was valued by their circle above all else, they view themselves as lesser beings. In response, they medicate shattered delusions of grandeur with dangerous sex, drugs, and boneheaded attempts at YouTube celebrity.
Aura is a tragic figure. She exists in a world where one must latch onto and venerate something as frivolous as photographing tiny furniture in order to swim with the current. This is the moribund New York that a very brave Lena Dunham forces her audience to confront. A New York perhaps many suburbanites drinking their Starbucks while watching Gossip Girl perceive with a hint of jealousy, awe, and admiration. Not after Tiny Furniture. Not anymore.