Should the Academy care to inaugurate a new award category this year, for Achievement in Being So Much Less Annoying Than We Expected Given All the Hype, and then fail to bestow it upon Lena Dunham for her film “Tiny Furniture,” a great opportunity will have been missed.
But of course Dunham knows about repurposing missed opportunities — at least if writing, directing and staring in a career-launching film about not launching a career is any indication. Dunham’s Aura — that’s the character’s name — is a knowing version of herself: a clever, creative, listless young woman who’s just finished college and, for lack of anything better to do, returned home to her family’s arty nook of New York City, seen here as both cosmopolitan and claustrophobic. Dunham’s mother, an artist, plays Aura’s mother, an artist. Her precocious teen sister plays her precocious teen sister.
As for Aura, she mostly meanders, ostensibly discovering what degree of self-indulgence is necessary for artistic maturation. She reconnects with an outrageous, partygoing old pal (Jemima Kirke). She records herself performing passages of her mother’s old diary. She pursues a couple of unavailable men — one a self-serious YouTube clown (Alex Karpovsky), the other a differently self-serious chef (David Call). It all comes quite naturally to Aura, as if she were put on the planet only to actualize her creator’s flagrantly conceptual, feminist take on DIY indie-film dynamics.
What’s amazing is that it’s so entertaining. As fashionably slight and apparently inflexible as a skinny person on a skinny fixed-gear bike, “Tiny Furniture” has more emotional range than it lets on. Dunham’s gift is partly to do with being able to write such pungently hilarious female dialogue and then being able to direct herself giving the perfect deadpan reaction to it. It’s also about writing young male characters with an authentic edge of mindless cruelty — a stacking up of little shitty telling gestures — and graciously allowing the self-mocking mumblecore veteran Karpovsky, ever a charmer, to have a blast with it. For any film offering the deflation of an air mattress as a huge dramatic turning point, these things matter.
“Tiny Furniture” dares to wonder: What if the automatic emotionalism of coming-of-age clichés could be co-opted in some sort of cerebral performance-art stunt, a comment on the pressure of public selfhood? Dunham knew that for her film to succeed, it would need not just smarts but discretion. It would need surprises (and there are those — such as what can only be described, for that same discretion’s sake, as the business with the hamster). Also, it would need at least some audience complicity. Dunham knew, going in, how today’s new filmmakers get vetted by the limply neo-auteurist appreciation of PR-abetted personality cults. She knew enough to keep seeming interesting.