With Lena Dunham's new television show "Girls" in the news, I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about her feature film "Tiny Furniture," one of the most buzzed about 2010 releases among the artsy crowd. I was tying myself in knots of anticipation to see it because I'd heard such wonderful things, and the idea of a young female American filmmaker making such a splash with her debut film was an incredibly appealing prospect. Unfortunately I couldn't find a way to see it until Criterion released "Tiny Furniture" on home media in December of 2011, and put it on Netflix shortly thereafter, which is where I finally got ahold of it. And after all that, I didn't like it.
As with all hyped up movies of this kind, first I wondered if there was something I was missing. Was there some context I needed to put the story in perspective, some sort of referential or satirical aspect of the film that wasn't registering in my consciousness? I'd read enough about the film that I knew what I should be paying attention to. I could see that the film was timely, dealing with the tribulations of a post-collegiate boomeranger, Aura (played by Dunham herself) who moves back in with her photographer mother Siri (Dunham's real mother, Laure Simmons) and overachiever teenage sister Nadine (Dunham's real sister, Grace Dunham). I could see how it was innovative, utilizing digital video and amateur actors. I could see how it was daring, with Lena Dunham putting her very ordinary, non-movie-star self in the spotlight, and including frank depictions of unflattering behavior and explicit, awkward sexual encounters. As more than one critic has pointed out, you don't see women with Dunham's body type doing the things she does here on film very often. The tiny feminist in me was also very happy to see the depiction of multiple relationships between Aura and other women - her mother, her sister, and friends Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) and Frankie (Merritt Wever).
And good grief, it was tedious. I haven't been having the greatest track record with coming-of-age stories recently, and "Tiny Furniture" came off as yet another self-obsessed, navel-gazing portrait of overgrown youth in directionless existential crisis. Maybe I'm too close to the subject matter, as I spent way too much of my twenties stuck in this phase, but much of the film was painful to watch, and not in a good way. Aura is an extremely trying protagonist, a young woman who is clearly intelligent but stubbornly obtuse about her tenuous living situation. Perhaps this is the fault of her home life, as her mother is a successful artist who has never had a job in her life. Perhaps this is the due to the influence of her friends, most of them similarly disconnected and living on high-minded aspirations. The brightest prospect among them is a burgeoning Youtube star. Whatever the reasons, Aura is extremely difficult to sympathize with. She self-aggrandizes and self-pities constantly, lashes out in childish ways, and is perpetually exasperated that life isn't going as easily for her as she wants it to.
Okay, so watching the movie is a slog, but lots of great movies aren't easy to watch. Surely I can appreciate the bravery of the director for serving up versions of herself and her immediate family, and subjecting them all to the gawking and potential disdain of her audience. Surely I noticed how well Dunham captures the particular patter and mannerisms of that certain breed of New York Gen Y-er in her writing, or how "Tiny Furniture" follows the spirit of the mumblecore movement if not its specific requirements. Yes to all of these things, but the end result still left me unmoved. The movie reeks of authenticity, from the do-it-yourself design aesthetics to Aura's volatile wardrobe, but only rarely does it work up the momentum to offer any good insights into her life. There are few nice scenes between Aura and her mother that I liked, but otherwise I couldn't connect with Aura's journey of self-discovery and disillusionment. It's a very candid one, certainly, but lacking the necessary focus to make it compelling.
I would like to see more from Lena Dunham, because she's clearly talented and has a strong, distinct point of view. However, I'm wary of any more exercises in autobiographical self-flagellation. A little is fine, but this is serious oversharing. And quite honestly, she's just not all that interesting as a subject of scrutiny.