Tiny Furniture

Micro-narratives
★★★
☆
Released: 
2010
Director: 
Lena Dunham
Starring: 
Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky
The Setup: 
Young woman moves back home after college, feels listless and alienated.
Discussion: 

It has kind of amazed me this year the amount of times I scan the listings and there is nothing, I mean NOTHING, to see. And in such cases my weekly movie buddy Howard and I usually find some well-regarded little indie we'd probably ignore otherwise, and such was the case that led us to this small, unusual and unconventional little film.
You should know up front that the movie is rather bold about echoing real life. Writer-director Lena Dunham plays Aura, who comes to live with her artist mother and sister in her Tribeca loft just after graduating college. In real life, Dunham just graduated, and the woman playing her mother IS her mother, who IS an artist, and the girl playing her sister IS her sister. It may prove that her mother's studio loft is her actual studio loft, but I'm not certain on that one.

So Aura arrives home. Her mother, Siri, is photographing her sister, Nadine, and doesn't even turn around to look at her. She has just returned from school in Ohio, where her good friend is planning to leave and join Aura to share a New York apartment. Her younger sister Nadine is a severely annoying and supercilious high school hipster and walking American Apparel ad who throws much withering attitude Aura's way. One aspect of their characters that is never discussed but remains ever-present throughout the film is that Aura is slightly overweight and while quite warm and charming, is clearly less invested in her personal appearance and artsy persona than her mother and sister. There is a funny moment as her mother tells her to look for light bulbs "in the white cabinet" as Aura stands before an entire wall of white cabinets in her mother's artsy minimalist studio.

Aura goes to a party where she meets Jed, YouTube star as the "Existentialist Cowboy" or something, who makes videos of him issuing intellectual pronouncements as he rocks on a wooden horse next to inflatable cactuses in his apartment. Aura thinks they're kind of brilliant. She also has a YouTube art video, in which she takes off her clothes and brushes her teeth in a public fountain. She is told Jed could be a potential date for her, and he toys with her while seeming completely uninterested. She also reconnects with childhood friend Charlotte, who is pretty, quite loose and amoral, and no stranger to intoxicating substances. Charlotte is played by Jemima Kirke and is definitely among the key highlights of the movie.

From then on, a whole lot of interesting nothing happens. Aura gets a job, where she is somewhat flirtatious with a chef, Jeff, who has a girlfriend but flirts back anyway. Particularly if Aura can get him some Vicodin. Aura has a date with Jed, but he has no money, because he's slumming while meeting with TV executives about launching some sort of show. When Aura suggests they go eat instead, he thinks it's okay to say something snotty along the lines of "Did you not hear the part about how I had no money?" Throughout, the script excellently captures the particular tenor of conversation among young New Yorkers invested in seeming hip at all costs, unable to become enthusiastic about anything or risk exposing emotional connection, each working hard to turn each phrase in everyday conversation to reflect ones literacy and cleverness.

Upon hearing Jed complain that he is crashing in a borrowed place way out in Bushwick, Aura offers that he can move in to her mother’s place while she and Nadine are out looking at colleges. He chooses to sleep in her mother’s bed, and Aura doesn’t stop him, even though her mother already told her she wouldn’t even want Aura sleeping in there while she’s away. Then Charlotte comes over—taking an immediate dislike to Jed—and drinks all of Aura’s mom’s wine. And eats all the food in the freezer. There’s a great moment when Charlotte says that the people Aura met in Ohio may not be hip, “But they probably weren’t assholes. Because everyone here—including our moms—are assholes.”

SPOILERS > > >
Eventually Aura’s mother comes back and is furious, at which point Aura freaks out and talks about all the pressure she’s under, which may confuse you, since she seems to have almost NOTHING going on. Jed has to move to her room, then complains that the air mattress is leaking. He moves into Aura’s bed, but complains that she “sweats the bed.” When Aura’s mother finally tells her to just get him out, he throws her some whiny line about how she “shouldn’t promise things she can’t deliver.” Aura never says the obvious thing, which is: "Are you aware at all that I am doing you a FAVOR?"

Aura calls her friend Frankie from Ohio and tells her that they can’t live together, because her mother really needs her around the house. This is patently untrue, but we are unsure whether Aura is deluding herself into believing it or not. This, by the way, is one DAY before Frankie was planning to move to New York to live with her, so she totally left Frankie in the lurch. A few days later Aura is at a gallery opening when Frankie shows up. Charlotte makes no bones about being HORRIFIED that anyone would even consider talking to Frankie, who is like SO not fashion-forward. When Frankie asks if they can go somewhere and talk, Aura says “We’re talking now.” She won’t acknowledge that maybe the middle of an art opening isn’t the best place to have a meaningful talk, won’t acknowledge that she did anything amiss by dumping her on the day before she was supposed to move—and then gets suddenly distracted when Jeff the cute chef arrives. Frankie walks out and never appears in the film again.

Jeff finally asks Aura on a date. Then doesn’t show. Then Aura gets some drugs. Then Jeff is interested. They suddenly start making out, then look around for a place to have sex. They finally end up in a tin tube laying in the middle of a vacant lot. It is quick and fumbling, and doesn’t appear to be satisfying for anyone, but maybe slightly more for Jeff. They are walking back when he thinks he sees his girlfriend and shoves Aura down behind a car. Though it’s not his girlfriend, he has lost all interest in Aura, and starts fumbling with his phone. She says “I’ll see you soon?” and he responds “I’ll see you later.”

Aura arrives home and crawls in bed with her mother. She says she feels like a failure but her mother says “Oh, you’ll be much more successful than I am.” Aura tears up slightly as she thinks how she was ill-used by Jeff. She asks if she can sleep with her mother, who agrees [Charlotte is out]. The mother asks if she can hide the alarm clock, since it’s ticking loudly. Aura hides it. The mother says she can still hear it. Aura says “But only a little bit.” The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

Now I just came through a period where I really hated New York, and spent several years deciding if I should move somewhere else. I'm actually not sure if I'm over it, or if I've just slipped a bit back into the kind of denial you have to maintain in order to live here. Because after the initial buzz wears off, you realize that the sheer size and amount of people in New York really do funny things to your head. First of all, it's just not healthy to be with this many people, because you become acutely aware that you DO NOT MATTER. Which leads different people to react in different ways, one of which is to exaggerate one's own "individuality," another of which is to become more narcissistic, and a third of which is to begin to despise all of humanity. And you can have all three at once! The other thing is that everyone here is so busy, and virtually everyone is trying to "make it" in one way or another, meaning that no one has much time for anyone else and, whether one wants to or not, it all quickly comes down to appearance and surface and first impressions. I was in Chicago recently and someone remarked that another person "takes time to get to know" and it occurred to me I haven't heard that phrase in YEARS! And despite all the scorn one can heap on others [and we do indeed], New York ultimately forces you to face that you do all those awful things yourself. Compounding all of this is that New Yorkers are so invested in being here that they WILL NOT HEAR any criticism of New York, leaving you to turn inward and believe that the problem must be YOU [as I have explicitly been told on more than one occasion]. That then wraps you up in this mindfuck that makes it impossible to leave. Yeah, it's the tops!

That said, this movie dramatizes many of those ideas. Jed is the guy who is trying to make it, and doesn't have much time for anyone who can't do something for him. Everyone is trying to be drolly clever and "distinctive" throughout, but the clearest scene of that is the party near the beginning. Aura's mother seems utterly uninvested in her, expressed in her total lack of interest that she's back home again, not even looking up when she arrives. At the end, when she says Aura will be more successful than she is, you think: Is she just lying? Just tossing off whatever positive thing you're supposed to say to your kids? Another bit that read as very true-to-life is Charlotte taking one look at Frankie, who has not dressed in a way that demonstrates awareness of fashion as defined by magazines, and clearly thinking "WHY would I ever talk to YOU?" When Charlotte says that everyone in New York is an asshole, well, I have had that very thought! Including the realization that one must include oneself in that judgment. When Aura blows Frankie off and has no time for her, that demonstrates how one quickly becomes that asshole, that person so busy that, despite your intentions, you just don't have time to worry about others.

When we walked out of this movie, I said "I'm not sure I know what that movie was about," because, in most films [even the fairly similar Please Give], there is one organizing point that the story is centered around making. Not so here. This really is just a slice of life. But the reason it is good and lingers in the mind is that it is such a vivid and true slice of life, which makes the fact that it just lays out a series of small events, and has an ambling, seemingly shapeless rhythm, into its strength.

What Dunham is very good and a bit coy about is Aura's character. As I said, the fact that she is a smidge overweight and not invested in fashion weighs very heavily toward the way she is treated, but she remains willfully oblivious to that and so does the movie, allowing you the viewer to put that together in your head. Thus when we see her foolishly putting herself out for these guys that clearly have no interest in her beyond what she can get for them, it's quite poignant. If the movie acknowledged this and made it a central point, it could easily slide into whininess, but since it doesn't, it remains quietly moving, and you really start to feel for this yearning and hapless character.

So I would say see it [though you're fine waiting for cable or Netflix]. You won't be blown away at the end, in fact, you might have a bit of a "Huh?' at the end, but it's very vivid and beautifully written, and is likely to linger in your mind for a few days. Especially if you live in New York.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it won't knock your socks off, but is quite moving and rich.