09 December 2010

Movie review: Tiny Furniture

If you met Lena Dunham for the first time without knowing who she is, you might be surprised to find that she's best known for her body. This is because a video Dunham posted of herself in a bikini, bathing and brushing her teeth in a fountain on the campus of Oberlin College, received well over a million hits on YouTube, and inspired a litany of somewhat mean-spirited comments questioning Dunham's qualifications for a career in lingerie modeling.

What's great about Dunham is that she doesn't seem to give a shit. In Tiny Furniture, which she wrote and directed, Dunham appears, at various points throughout the film, wearing only a shirt and underpants, wearing only a sheer body stocking, and even nude in the shower (from a tasteful distance). And yet it never seems as though she is rubbing her delightfully rotund1 and imperfect form in the viewer's face รก la, say, Beth Ditto. Instead she seems not to even notice her own body. Whereas some women choose to proudly rebel against a society that teaches them to hate their bodies and to starve, wax, nip, tuck, bleach them to perfection, Dunham has chosen to simply ignore the whole thing and worry about something else.

Like what to do with life after college. Tiny Furniture may be one of the most openly autobiographical "fictional" films ever made, and Dunham lays out the excrutiating details of what I assume is her life with a verve that would make Ross McElwee blush. Dunham plays Aura, who, like Dunham herself, has recently graduated from Oberlin College and moved back in with her mother in Tribeca. Her mother, an artist of some renown best known for her photographs of miniature furniture, is played not by a professional actress but by Dunham's own mother, an artist of some renown best known for her photographs of miniature furniture. Aura's sister is similarly played by Dunham's sister.

Beyond the film's verisimilitude, it is essentially a straightforward coming-of-age indie comedy. Aura reunites with Charlotte, her New York party-girl best friend, becomes estranged from Frankie, her bookish college best friend, gets a shitty job, quits her shitty job, and romantically pursues shitty men.

And while no one goes out of their way to make things any easier, the men in Aura's life are particularly awful. Jed is a freeloading ingrate who stays at Aura's (mother's) apartment, eats her (mother's) food, drinks her (mother's) wine and complains of having no money, all while sharing Aura's own bed without a hint of sexual reimbursement. Keith, on the other hand, is a manipulative sleaze who tries to get Aura to get him Vicodin from Charlotte, talks constantly of his problems with his girlfriend, then finally screws Aura in an abandoned parking lot. And no, not in a car. The scene is very cruelly and deftly presented as rock bottom for the main character. All this while Aura pines for her college boyfirend, a shallow hippie who moved out west after graduation to find himself. One hopes that Dunham has had better luck in the time since making the film. Lord knows Aura deserves better.

In short, the film is enjoyable if not earth-shattering, and makes the most of its genre's conventions without ever transcending them. It's in many ways the very definition of a promising first film. Based on this, I'd probably go see her next one.

Tangents & Clarifications

  1. Full disclosure: I'm a sucker for big thighs, and think Dunham's kinda hott.[Return]

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