Naive sophistication, and privilege as disadvantage
An interesting aspect of young Lena Dunham's feature is that some of the most favorable reviews and interviews never mention the word "Mumblecore." There has to be a reason for that. If Tiny Furniture is annoying, it may be because it's smoother than most Mumblecore movies and that only brings out the laziness, the unambitious self-satisfaction of the genre/school/orientation of the young educated white Americans who've turned on their digital cameras and gained encouragement, or been called cool, for their DIY efforts to make feature films about themselves, which is to say, about nothing much. Tiny Furniture is Mumblecore that's suave enough to make you wonder why there isn't more to it. The clumsiness of other work of this generation makes one think there's something (maybe just raw "reality") behind it. Polish and self-possession in this director makes one suspect "reality" isn't all that interesting sometimes. Would anybody but film students and a tiny demographic find solace or food for thought in this picture? Tiny Furniture's protagonist, Lena herself, has just finished college and returns to the (admittedly somewhat chilly) "womb" of her highly successful mom's and self-confident teenage sister's big, all-white, hi-tech Tribeca loft. Dunham may be called Aura in the film instead of Lena (a name NY Times critic Manohla Dargis weaves a fancy critical-theory explanation for), but -- what is mildly unusual, but not very -- the filmmaker/actress managed to cast her own successful artist mother Laurie Simmons as Aura's mom and and her self-confident sister Grace Dunham as Aura's sister Nadine, and set much of the action in her mom's actual home. Not too much of a stretch there. Aura gets a job as a hostess at a restaurant around the corner and consorts with two freeloader would-be boyfriends: Keith (David Call), a sou-chef who cadges drugs off her and has sex with her in a pipe, and Jed (Alex Karpofsky, a Mumblecore regular, here an cutesy YouTuber and insufferable person) who only wants a place to sleep, and gets it, till Aura's mother comes back from a trip.
A positive aspect of Tiny Furniture (the title presumably refers to Aura's and Lena's mom's post-feminist photographic artwork about female roles) is that if it's sluggish and meandering, it's also good-natured. Mom and sis nudge Aura for taking up space and not doing much, but they're still friendly and polite, and Siri (Simmons' name here) tells Aura this is her home and is even kind enough to assure her she is probably going to become much more successful than she herself is. (A little research reveals that Lena Dunham's father, Carroll Dunham, is a successful artist himself; he did not, however, consent to "act" here.) Perhaps looking for signs of earlier doubts despite the current maternal success, Aura finds her mother's journals from when she was her age and reads them (and doubt she does indeed find there). Her mother doesn't mind this snooping.
Another feature that you may or may not like is Dunham's penchant for disrobing for the camera, showing her pear shape and small breasts without shame (as she should: there's nothing wrong with how she looks), and walking around the loft clad in T-shirt without pants. Aura just got a degree in Film Theory, again doubtless true, though the alma mater, Obrerlin, isn't plugged.
The material is Mumblecore, but the people don't mumble. Dunham favors articulate, unhesitant speech. She even indulges in a witty former best friend with good looks and an English accent, the drug-hoovering, wine-gulping and quite entertaining Charlotte (Jemima Kirke). If all the characters were like Charlotte, and Nadine's misbehaving preppie pals got to speck at their party, this might have a remote chance of approaching the sophistication of Whit Stillman's (1990) Metropolitan. But Metropolitan is about social life and Tiny Furniture is just about a self-absorbed young woman who never leaves the neighborhood.
Dunham's film has been acclaimed at the South by Southwest Festival (an ideal venue, to which it was granted late admission), then gotten generally favorable reviews and interviews in the NY Times and The New Yorker. I've given Mumblecore my time and my attention, but now I begin to wonder, if this is the template talented beginners are going to follow. Is there nothing better? This film made me badly need to see a HongKong gangster movie. If the depths of genre seem to offer more for the imagination and the heart to contemplate, something must be off.
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