Monday, January 16, 2012

Tiny Furniture (2010)

I remember first watching the trailer for Tiny Furniture and thinking to myself that this looks hilarious, darkly realistic and different.  Fast forward to a few months later after I finally got around to watching it and each of those impressions retain their own respective degree of truth.

For starters let's cover the basics.  Distributed by IFC Films, Tiny Furniture is the brainchild of its director, writer and star Lena Dunham, a 25 year old filmmaker hailing from New York.  Just given that tiny bit of information, one might take a shot in the dark that this film will employ an autobiographical nature, specifically a post-college subject-matter, while probably embracing an indie tone.  And it does.  In fact, the first scene follows Aura (played by Dunham) returning from school in Ohio, entering her impressively large and contemporary TriBeCa loft still inhabited by her mother (Laurie Simmons) and sister (Grace Dunham).  It's clear that Aura immediately feels ill-received and out of place.  Her mom, a photographic artist, works out of the studio in the apartment and barely pays her a hello, while her sister is focused on the normal high school mélange of stressors with no room in her routine for a currently life-pondering sister.

This trio of a nuclear family (there is never mention of a father) communicate to each other in sarcastic witticisms while never seemingly devoting their full attention or solemnity in conversation to one another.  To do so might border on acting as a cliché family.  There are respective tensions building between Aura and her mother and sister.  There is the conflict between Aura's home friends and those of her collegiate life.  There is that small matter of what means of employment Aura, a self-described videomaker (of the comical YouTube variety), plans to pursue in life.  And finally, most expectedly, there is boy trouble for Aura who is coming off a two year college romance which is belittled by her friends and family, and who now finds herself attracted to two potential suitors.

Two notes of interest: First, I could not help but be reminded of the Catherine Hardwicke directed Thirteen during the course of watching Tiny Furniture.  There are similarities that go beyond a female protagonist coming of age (albeit a different age) surrounded by a largely female presence.  For one the subject of sex and drugs are explored to some extent in both.  But what really had me recalling the 2003 feature film was that it too was semi-autobiographically written by its star lead, Nikki Reed.

Second, over the course of her screenplay, Dunham references Gilda Radner, acclaimed comedienne and original SNL cast alumnus. Given Dunham's outgoing style and strong screen presence it's clear enough that she has taken to the legacy of one of America's greatest comics as a strong influence.  A wise choice.

Now on to whether the film made good on its initial billing...

Jemima Kirke as Charlotte.

Did the film deliver on its comedic chops as portended in the trailer?  For the most part, yes.  Though there is plenty of gloom and whining by the characters overall, the character of Aura fancies herself as something of a comedienne.  This allows her to play out as the straight man in the majority of her relationships making for amusing commentary that the audience can enjoy.  By far, however, Aura's home friend Charlotte, played by the uncompromisingly hilarious Jemima Kirke, provides the lion's share of laughs.  She is the completely independent (living situation-wise; not finance-wise) daughter of successful artists who sports a pompous and unconvincing British accent (sidenote: turns out it's real but heavily Americanized) and frequents galleries and house parties in her spare time, which is to say all her time.  Her explicit mannerisms and admitted self-entitlement are just some of the dimensions that will bring you to guffaw at this well-written character.

Darkly realistic
Set in Dunham's hometown, enlisting her real-life mother to play her mother, her real-life sister to play her sister, with about half the scenes taking place in her real-life apartment - Tiny Furniture can really not help but to be realistic.  The film is shot in digital giving things a non-fictional or documentary feel and on a $50,000 budget meaning you're not going to be treated to the accustomed Hollywood cocktail of tricks and effects.  The high definition digital composition also does little to mollify the evident lack in hair and makeup personnel, a plus in realistic portrayal.  Darkness is achieved through bouts of heavy cynical dialogue and the general mise-en-scène (ie. the clash between workplace and home that is the family's loft)  peppered by raw shots of Manhattan.  A climactic sex scene's location which is too good to give away also contributes in the same vein.

The most vague of my micro-conclusions based on the trailer, is also the most difficult to grade based on the film.  Sure, the movie was unique.  The manner in which it was conceived and produced alone earn it that.  But what of the story, its message and/or any payoff?  This was the major disappointment for me.  Until now you have read nothing analytical of the narrative.  Unfortunately this is inherently due to the lack of narrative depth.  The storyline is flat supported by very little to no arcs in its characters development.  While Aura is omnipresent throughout the film's scenes, we're left with nothing more than a superficial snapshot of one abbreviated segment in her life.  The very last sequence in Tiny Furniture involves our protagonist and her mother with attempt at metaphorically referencing a ticking clock.  It's a welcomed subtextual parting gift after a script lacking thereof, but it falls under the category of too little, too late.

Lena Dunham, Writer/Director/Actress.
Final word on newcomer Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture must be a positive one.  The film is perfectly confluent.  The dialogue is smart and the acting is impressively understated, not to mention seamless given that much of the cast had little experience going in.  Watch it and appreciate the work of a talented up-and-coming female in her early 20's who we are sure to be seeing a lot more of in the not too distant future.  While we were all tragically cheated out of a full spanning career by Gilda Radner, her star surely remains in the form of Lena Dunhams today.

~ Review by Mike Dorfman

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