By Liz Miller (La Crossse, WI, US)
Twenty-two year old Aura is going through a quarter-life crisis. She has recently graduated from college with a degree that she regrets choosing, been dumped by her feminist boyfriend, has moved back home with her mother and sister, and keeps her dead hamster Gilda in the freezer. But, while writer-director and lead actress Lena Dunham, of her full-length debut Tiny Furniture, masterfully shows that this loss of self that burdens many twentysomethings can generate incredibly funny moments, she doesn’t forget that it is equally as painful.
From Aura’s point of view, her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons, Dunham’s mother in real life), and sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham, Dunham’s sister in real life), contribute to this feeling of dejection. Siri is preoccupied with her work as a photographer of miniature furniture, and her sister revels in her position as the star sibling. Together they are “some kind of gang,” according to Aura.
And, so, Aura is quickly drawn toward fellow lost kids going through their “adultolescence” phase. Charlotte (Jemima Kirke, Dunham’s friend in real life) is an old friend, who literally slaps Aura in the face when she sees her at a party. Aura has been avoiding her for years. She is the girl who people think has a screw loose, a beautiful outsider who leaves her lights on when she goes out, “just for fun.” But, she seems to feign this care-free attitude. After telling Aura how lucky she is to have Siri and Nadine, she almost too quietly says that she feels like an orphan.
And then there is Jed (Alex Kaporvsky) who Aura is forced to meet at the same party. He is a sort-of YouTube sensation as “the Nietschian Cowboy, [sic].” Even though he is supposedly in town to meet with major TV networks about a show, he is without a decent place to stay. Aura, of course, invites him to stay at her loft while her mother and sister are visiting colleges. A real “loafer,” as Charlotte insists, he eats Siri’s food, and drinks her wine, but Aura doesn’t stop him.
Some may whine that Aura is privileged, self-involved, and feels entitled. She throws a temper tantrum when she feels that her mother has unreasonably high expectations of her, she gives up on her job as a hostess at Clandestino’s pretty quickly, and just one day before her best friend from Ohio, Frankie (Merritt Wever), is to move to NYC so that they can be roommates, Aura backs out of the deal.
But, Dunham doesn’t suggest that Aura is the moral compass. A huge part of the appeal of the film is that it is honest. With subtle humor, she unashamedly acknowledges Aura’s character flaws, throughout the film.
In one scene, Aura comes home, and is happy to see her mother. After trying to reach Aura all day, Siri is not receptive to Aura’s warm behavior. She calmly asks her why there are ten bottles of her wine missing, and Aura quickly becomes defensive.
She explains that she is trying to figure it all out, and then hilariously shrieks, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like to have a job. Did you ever have a job that wasn’t just taking pictures of stupid tiny crap?!”
Yes, it’s clear that Aura needs to gain some perspective and acts unreasonable at times, but we don’t hate it when she makes bad choices. That is, Dunham’s writing and delivery make it difficult not to laugh at these moments, and easy to admire Dunham’s talent as an actress and a writer.
Dunham recognizes that language in itself can be funny. Words can be funny even when they aren’t composed to be conventional “jokes.” Sometimes it just takes the right actress, and a writer with a good ear.
In another scene, even more clearly, Dunham acknowledges that the young characters in the film aren’t necessarily in the right. Aura’s mother, Siri, questions her about the fact that Jed ate all of the frozen entrees, and that nothing is in the freezer, with the exception of the frozen hamster. Siri then asks Charlotte, “Do you have the same sense of entitlement as my daughter?” Charlotte responds, “Believe me, mine is much worse.”
Dunham also makes it hard for us to find Aura completely unlikable, or to dislike this film, because as counter to the hilarious dialogue, she provides us with bigger ideas to reflect upon after viewing. The moments that occur between Aura and the young men in her life are particularly important to notice.
Jed doesn’t show interest in her sexually. His main purpose in her life, while he stays at her loft, is to complain. Her mother’s bed is uncomfortable, and the draft in her room is “annoying.” When he has to sleep on an air mattress, he claims that it is slowly deflating. Aura tells him that he can sleep in her bed, and when he turns his back to her, she reaches her arm across to touch him, but pulls it back in hesitation.
So, before she quits her job as a hostess, she turns her focus to Keith (David Call), the smooth-talking, model-esque chef of Clandestino’s. He reads Austerlitz which means that he is “oddly literary,” while donning a fedora. What more could Aura want?
He stands her up the first time they hang out, he seems to be all too interested in the fact that Aura’s friend Charlotte has the hookup for pharmaceuticals, and he has a girlfriend. Yet, she pursues him.
It’s all a little heartbreaking and familiar for people, of any age, who have used those they are attracted to as distraction from life’s problems. Even though Aura is young, surely older viewers can relate to trying to use a romantic partner, the wrong one at that, as a placeholder for happiness.
Anyone who complains that Dunham’s brilliant debut is another indie film about “nothing,” isn’t taking the proper time reflect. With a new-found, strong footing in the mumblecore genre Dunham sets the example for what a comedy-drama should be. Her brilliant, realistic dialogue, subtle humor, and believable acting, help to prove that she is insightful beyond her years, and a triple threat of indie film.