in Criterion Month

Tiny Furniture (2011)

It was funny seeing Lena Dunham in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood last weekend because, while I guess her social media presence means she still grabs the occasional headline, it seems like pop culture has decided to be done with her since Girls ended in 2017. Which I don’t think is entirely fair, she seems like an extremely outspoken person who has a tendency to put her foot in her mouth with surprising regularity but that’s nothing compared to plenty of other scumbags in Hollywood who are nonetheless considered less toxic. But the reality of seeing Tiny Furniture in 2019 means being unable to give its writer/director/star any benefit of the doubt, to its detriment. Because like that TV show, I can imagine having liked this a lot more back in a time when I knew a lot less.

Aura (Lena Dunham) moves back home to her mom’s chic TriBeCa loft after graduating from Oberlin College as a film major and getting dumped by her boyfriend. Her plan is to save money until her friend Frankie (Merritt Wever, Schmidt’s college girlfriend from New Girl) finishes her degree and they can get a place together in the city. Her mom (Laurie Simmons, Dunham’s real mom) tries to be welcoming but seems more concerned with her work photographing tiny furniture to spend the time to relearn what it’s like to have Aura in her life again. Her sister (Grace Dunham, her real sibling) is succeeding in high school and acts condescendingly towards her directionless older sister.

Aura gets invited to a party where she meets Jed (Alex Karpovsky), with whom she instantly bonds over the fact that they’re both aspiring filmmakers who’ve made YouTube videos. Before she can spend more time with him, Aura gets pulled aside by Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a childhood friend who is desperate to reconnect. They go back to Charlotte’s place where she reveals she’s a recovering addict and they smoke weed. Charolotte recommends Aura for a job as a day hostess at a nearby restaurant.

Aura gets the job and immediately starts flirting with Keith (David Call), a handsome sous chef who likes to read books. When she gets home, the news the Aura got a minimum wage job is overshadowed by her sister winning a prestigious award for her poetry, even though she doesn’t like poems. With a world of possibilities now opened, she and her mom go to visit colleges, leaving Aura with the place to herself. So when Aura meets up with Jed again and finds out he’s been couchsurfing while his agent tries to find him work, she invites him to stay with her in the loft.

If you’ve seen Girls, you’ll probably have noticed how similar Tiny Furniture sounds to that series. This was made two years before that show, and it really feels like just a few tweaks away from being a prequel. Which reflects how personal these two projects were and how similar Hannah and Aura and Lena all must be. The real-life Lena Dunham is also a Oberlin graduate, like those characters, and even used her real family and home to make this movie. And, like that show, the movie just reeks too much of privilege and self-centeredness to be enjoyable.

All that said, there is a level of craftsmanship to this film that must be recognized. Unlike a lot of mumblecore movies of this time, Tiny Furniture is really well-shot, with thoughtfully choreographed and framed scenes throughout. And you cannot deny that Dunham has a voice as a writer, one that I wish I still liked. Back in the day, it felt like she was a person about my age writing about the things we were both going through. Post-college ennui is a real, shitty experience and I totally get the emotional toll it takes to go from being told anything is possible to not being able to get a job or pay rent. I just wish she wasn’t so focused on making a stories about jerks in a jerk-world.

I mean, check your privilege, right? I think when you get down to it, that’s where most of the resentment for Lena Dunham comes from. She got to grow up in New York in an amazing loft with an artist mom and then also made a successful indie film out of her life at 24 which led to being in Judd Apatow movies and creating an HBO series. So people ask themselves what makes her so special? They might even attack her writing, her politics, her appearance. It’s all a smokescreen for the fundamental question: “why her and not me?” When the answer doesn’t come or is too unpleasant to think about, maybe that jealousy turns into hatred. And that sucks. I hope she can find a way to chill out a bit on social media and maybe try making something different someday, because she’s got talent.

But yeah, I didn’t like this movie very much.