Aura has just graduated. She’s back at the family home which, in her case, a massive apartment-slash-studio in the TriBeCa area of Lower Manhattan. Mom is a successful artist and photographer, hence the plush surroundings, and seventeen-year-old sister Nadine is there too. Aura, to use her own words, is in a ‘post-graduate delirium’, unsure of what to do with her life now that she has her degree in film studies theory and smarting from a recent split with her college boyfriend. She makes quirky little YouTube videos, we hear, but as her fellow offspring-of-a-successful-artist friend points out, they don’t need to be self-supporting until they are in their late twenties. And so Aura and her chums are free to worry about boys, not hold down jobs and mope about in their nightwear.
Aura is played by Lena Dunham, who also wrote and directed Tiny Furniture and is currently attracting plenty of attention with her HBO sitcom Girls (which reaches the UK in September). In fact, Aura pretty much is Lena Dunham. She too has a successful artist-photographer mother who also happens to live in the very same apartment where much of the film was made. Furthermore the on-screen mom is played by her real-life equivalent, Laurie Simmons, whilst Dunham’s younger sister Grace does likewise for Nadine. Even the supporting roles are filled out by various friends and acquaintances. As for the YouTube videos, they too find their genesis in real life. Dunham has been making shorts and web series since her student days; the one we see within Tiny Furniture, The Fountain, originally dates from 2007.
It’s easy to equate the semi-autobiographical with the self-indulgent, especially if you’ve seen some of those earlier shorts. Five have been included among the extras on this particular disc, including Dunham’s very first, Dealing, which was made in 2005. As with the main feature, friends and family (and the family home) are roped into service, and the template is set in other ways too. Each is never that far removed from Dunham’s own existence, prompting them to fall somewhere between documentary and home movie. Although perhaps ‘playtime’ is a more apt turn - an amateur filmmaker occupying her time with these crudely put together and in-jokey little endeavours seemingly intended only for herself and those who share her onscreen space.
In making the transition to features, of which Tiny Furniture is Dunham’s second, it is this sense of the self-enclosed which remains the biggest hurdle. How many prospective audience members share in Dunham’s existence of plush surroundings and financial comfort and are able to immediately identify with or at least have some sympathy for her self-diagnosed ‘delirium’? Of course, certain themes are universal to all early twentysomethings - the career-based decision making, the relationship problems - but not all of us were subject to the same safety net as Aura and her friends. We need to have a reason to like these characters otherwise their continual whingeing and moaning is going to fall on deaf ears.
Unfortunately Tiny Furniture doesn’t always put in the legwork. Its various twentysomethings communicate via ironic fist-bumps and appropriated sayings from popular sitcoms, creating a closed-circuit of in-jokey references which proves difficult to penetrate. Aura and pals are so busy being flip that any insight into their emotional existence feels completely ignored. No doubt there’s some truth in such a guarded portrayal - openness isn’t exactly characteristic of this age range - but it proves to be a massive failing whenever the film calls upon a big scene. At these moments we realise the complete lack of dramatic weight, that any and all arguments hold little or no resonance with us and that, ultimately, we don’t really care about these people.
The humour has a similar disconnect. Aura’s YouTube videos are referred to as ‘funny’ and ‘hilarious’, yet no-one ever breaks into a laugh or even a smile when watching them, least of all the audience. For all the talk of them receiving massive hit counts there’s that same sense of the self-enclosed once more; there’s a gag in there somewhere, but we’re not part of it. Elsewhere Tiny Furniture relies on awkward situations and the occasional one-liner for its laughs, although these too rarely reward. The comic dialogue, in particular, feels punctuated by our own silences. The intent is there, and appears to have been performed so that we’re fully aware that we are supposed to be wrapped up in the hilarity of it all, but these moments rarely come off. There again, if Dunham can score a hit sitcom on HBO in the aftermath of Tiny Furniture, perhaps I’m missing out.
With that said, Dunham does have a likeable on-screen presence which is easy enough to discern. Of course, context must play a part given the host of generally disagreeable characters who pervade Tiny Furniture, but then I would much rather spend ninety-or-so minutes in her company than any of the others on offer. That may not be saying very much, though it did at least see me through the picture. Similarly, the cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes (who would subsequently shoot Martha Marcy May Marlene) deserves some recognition, especially when you consider that it was shot with a Canon digital camera. Whereas American independent cinema once meant the scuzzy black and white visuals of, say, Matthew Harrison’s Rhythm Thief or Rose Troche’s Go Fish, now it can offer up pristine ’scope imagery barely discernible from that of top-end productions.
Interestingly, Tiny Furniture is arguably as much an ‘outsider’ movie as those earlier independents, albeit at the opposite end of the class spectrum. The lives of upper-middle class twentysomethings are as singular as those of the low-budget loners and lesbians and just as outside of your average viewer’s everyday experience. Yet it is this which Dunham fails to recognise. Her own experiences are no less valid for on-screen consumption than anyone else’s, but there has to be a means of connecting with an audience beyond her immediate peers. As it stands Tiny Furniture is too self-involved, too self-enclosed and too self-indulgent to make that connect.
Released in the US on both Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, here in the UK we are offered just a DVD edition. It’s also a little lighter on extras, though far from bare-bones. The presentation itself is excellent, retaining both the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced) and the DD5.1 soundtrack. Colours are strong and detail is superb, with only intermittent instances of colour banding letting the side down. The soundtrack, meanwhile, copes perfectly well with the dialogue and Teddy Blanks’ gentle score. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
Special features consist of an interview with Dunham, five of her earlier shorts and the theatrical trailer. The interview is gleaned from the 2011 feature-length documentary PressPausePlay which looks at the state of the creative arts in this current digital age. At a little over nine minutes in length it’s able to discuss the subject in some depth and to get an idea of Dunham the filmmaker separate from Aura the character. It’s also easily the best of the additions given how the five shorts are all borderline unwatchable. Indeed, having found Tiny Furniture severely handicapped by its sense of self-indulgence, these ones are completely suffocated by it. An insight into Dunham’s very first experiences behind a camera, perhaps, but that’s the only concession worth granting.
Semi-autobiographical second feature from Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO's Girls...