In her debut feature, Tiny Furniture, writer-director-star Lena Dunham plays Aura, a recent college graduate (from a college in Ohio, presumably Oberlin, where Dunham went) who moves back into the huge Tribeca loft of her successful artist mother after breaking up with her college boyfriend.
She’s not getting along with her 17-year-old sister Nadine (Grace Dunham, real-life sister of the filmmaker, deadpan and amusing), who excels academically and thinks Aura is kind of a loser. To make matters worse, she’s not doing well with the two crushes she pursues shortly after moving back: a comedian who’s shopping around his “Nietzschean Cowboy” YouTube video with television producers, and a chef at the restaurant where Aura works who speaks in obnoxious clichés like “no harm, no foul” and “same shit, different day.”
In turn, Aura says things to these guys like “My dirty little secret is that I actually hate foreign films,” and “It’s cool that you have a thing. Like, food is your thing.” Well gee, what guy wouldn’t go for that?
Dunham, for the most part, gives a grounded, tender performance that makes Aura— unkempt, a little chubby, and unsure of herself—feel much more immediate and real than most 22-year-old female characters in American movies. Dunham spends much of Tiny Furniture in her underwear, in a feminist dare to a viewer who might think only more glamorous, svelte female figures should be seen on screen. We want the best for Aura, and we ache when she’s rejected romantically, and ache even more when she’s briefly, almost brutally, accepted sexually.
While the character of Aura is realistic and vulnerable, the fact that she’s also extremely privileged gives the film an uneasy feeling that it doesn’t benefit from, and there’s not much to distract us from it. There’s very little chemistry between anyone on screen, despite the fact that Dunham has cast her real mother and sister as Aura’s mother and sister, and real-life friends as Aura’s friends. Arguments feel manufactured and written rather than believable, Dunham’s static frames are annoyingly precious, and the whole thing looks like it was shot from behind a screen door.
Dunham can be downright blithe about the privileged entitlement her character enjoys: in a conversation between her and her mother, she talks about wanting to be successful, as if she could will it into existence. What Dunham avoids addressing is that for a certain class, success is practically guaranteed, and Aura’s indecision about what to do with her life has a minimum amount of consequences. It’s hard to empathize with indecision and ennui when it’s being experienced by someone who doesn’t want to move to gentrified Brooklyn because her mom’s spacious, pristine loft in Tribeca is “so convenient.” There is simply no pressure on Aura to figure things out, and the fact that she ends the film with the sound of a ticking clock, as if time is running out, feels ridiculous.
If Dunham were more aware of Aura’s insulation from normal people problems, there would be more to dissect in her relationships with men. She could suggest that women, no matter their social status, are always inferior in some regard. The security afforded her as a New York rich kid can be ripped away in her emotional and sexual dealings with less privileged men.
Tellingly, the guys that Aura goes for have no economic or class advantages. The chef isn’t getting along with his girlfriend, but can’t move out because it’s too expensive, and the Nietzschean Cowboy makes frequent reference to his nonexistent bank balance. Still, they wield an inordinate amount of power over Aura, partly because she lets them (out of youthful, girlish insecurity), and partly because of accepted gender roles and internalized feelings of worthlessness, which we see in a very well-executed and extremely icky sex scene near the end of the film.
Tiny Furniture benefits from analysis, but doesn’t often seem in control of what it’s trying to get at. The psycho-sexual politics at play are far more dynamic when thought about than when they’re on screen, partly because of Aura’s (and, it seems, Dunham’s) obliviousness to her own privilege. A generous reading can interpret the film as a realistic, feminist study of stalled gender relations, even among youngsters making conceptual YouTube videos and studying film theory at Oberlin. Unfortunately, while on screen, it plays more like a film about a spoiled young woman feeling unsure of herself.