Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture depicts a college graduate who returns home and finds herself without occupation, a boyfriend, and even an identity. Generally, such a description only scratches the surface of a film, but Tiny Furniture is content to be just that. Its minimalism is not inherently a flaw. In fact, minimalism is what allows for the more poignant attempts at truth that Dunham attempts to convey. The reason the minimalism backfires is that an attempt to tell a story of a generation of college graduates—coming home after getting a useless degree at a private college only to work a dead-end, low-skill, low-paying job—becomes a look at a selfish, entitled and unlikable woman.
“Mumblecore,” the buzzword of American, independent, 21st century film, is often used to describe Tiny Furniture, and while it may come off as such, technically, the adherence to a written script disqualifies it. Still, that level of naturalism, perhaps even realism, is there. It is the film’s biggest virtue but also one of its biggest flaws. Seeing someone as relatable as a lost post-grad whose life feels like a search for abstract “success” is a breath of fresh air; the lack of plot is not the weakness; the weakness is the lack of drama. Our lost post-grad Aura (played by Dunham herself) shows little desire in actually finding that “success,” whether it be in a career or in a relationship. Her reliance on her family’s resources and her abuse of them despite it is condescending to the twenty-somethings who can so easily relate to her situation.
It’s hard to root for or identify with Aura when she invites a boy to live with her for a week when her mother and sister are away and then lashes out at her mother because she does not approve. Aura’s childish logic is later followed by a childish confrontation with her high-school sister when the latter throws a party when their mother is away. Aura finds herself wondering why the boy she invited to live with her won’t sleep with her, and she wonders the same thing of her sort-of-taken coworker, but can we share her frustration when at least one of the men is immature and the other is so passive? Is it not easy to side with the men in steering clear from a relationship when we see Aura acting like a middle-school student, surrounded by her immature friends?
That said, Tiny Furniture is tightly scripted. It is on occasion clever and funny, and as well as any film, it adheres to “show, don’t tell.” When she invites that boy to live with her for a week and has sex in a pipe in a street, we understand her loneliness. When she quits her job after a disappointing paycheck, we sense her frustration. All the themes, as stilted as I believe them to be because of Aura’s character, are entirely inductive. Dunham never holds our hand, never tells us what her movie is about, and never tells us what to think about Aura’s mother, sister, friends, or boyfriends. Dunham is a filmmaker who knows and trusts her audience. It is a shame, then, that her audience is comprised of individuals far more intelligent than her characters.
What Dunham has done with Tiny Furniture is, unfortunately, far from what she must have intended. Dunham casts her mother and sister as her mother and sister, and her own character went to the same college and went back to the same home that Dunham herself did. It is clear that she is portraying the struggles of a generation confronted by a weak economy, but she has also unintentionally indicted that generation for being spoiled and lazy and taken her privilege for granted. Of course, an unlikable lead does not doom a movie (I can’t count the number of great films that focus on terrible people, but if I could I’d start with Raging Bull), but that we are so obviously supposed to sympathize with Aura, who is, additionally, a rather flat character, does not help. She loves her family, yes, but also wants to be independent. She is spoiled but is apologetic about it. In these ways, Dunham has certainly captured a demographic. But the problem with this is that Dunham has absolutely nothing to say about the scared, lonely post-grads. Life is hard? It’s hard to even get that simple message by watching a girl who is twice late to work during her week of employment. Finding good lovers is hard? Finding good friends is hard? Aura seems content with what she has. If Lena Dunham really tells us anything with Tiny Furniture, it’s that people suck. Ms. Dunham, your film appeals to post-grads who cannot find jobs and to film enthusiasts who only wish that the mainstream would accept such unique films. They do not need to be told that people suck.
Lena Dunham has since gone on to write, direct, and star in the HBO TV show Girls. That show, while falling into many of the same pitfalls, is a more fleshed out look at a very real demographic. The lows are painfully low, but I recommend at least checking out the first few episodes and deciding if it’s your thing.