Rack Focus Review: Tiny Furniture

Graduating from college comes with an overwhelming ennui that leads graduates to believe we are being utterly underutilized in a society that can’t appreciate our over-education. We’re entitled to everything because, after all, we know everything there is to know about life. Tiny Furniture, which won best narrative feature at SXSW 2010, is about learning that we actually don’t know anything except nobody else (including our successful friends and parents) knows anything either.

Dunham is Aura, a recent graduate from a prestigious liberal arts college who returns home to live in her mother’s shwanky loft in Tribeca, New York. She hates living at home, as it contains her artsy mother (Laurie Simmons) and her obnoxious younger sister (Grace Dunham), but knows the arrangement is only until she gets an apartment with her best college friend (Merritt Wever). Until then, it’s job hunting and catching up with peers, who all seem to have their lives on the road to being sorted out. Surrounded by the young, artistic and sardonic, Aura is forced to ponder whether she should be creating, reading, meeting people, or joining the work force regimen. In the meantime, she’d much rather sulk. Her only apparent modicum of comfort  comes from Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a childhood friend with a maybe-British accent who concerns herself with none of these details.

Aura is not a charmer or seductress in the classic sense, but does manage pull in both Jed (Alex Karpovsky), who has recently ridden a rocking horse to minor YouTube celebrity (literally), and Keith (David Call), a chef at the restaurant where she eventually becomes a hostess.  She does have sex at one point, but it can hardly qualify as satisfying. She wants to be happy, but is perhaps unsure what happiness is beyond knowing that this isn’t it.

But what is the magic trick? Her mother is a famous artist who makes a lot of money selling photographs of miniature furniture sets. Her sister seems genetically superior in every way — taller and thinner — and has the promise of success that comes with youth. Jed, who is roughly her age, is a YouTube sensation, which means he must be famous, right? Somebody must have some answers — and indeed they do, but they aren’t what Aura wants to hear right now.

ImageI loved Tiny Furniture because it is a great film made with the budget required and not a penny more (a mere $50,000). Dunham won an Independent Spirit Award for the screenplay, which is a brutally honest character study with a fantastically unreliable narrator that understands very little on the road to having no answers. “Ain’t no frills here,” as my grandmother never said.These kinds of stories litter both my expansive DVD collection and my own notes for developing film projects, and so it’s fair to say this is right up my alley.

But then again, maybe I loved it because I too am in that strange space between graduation and a solid career — like running on a treadmill and wishing it was a race track. Graduates in the new millennium have been praised and rewarded along the programed course of academic success, only to emerge into the working world where the path is unclear and all routes have walls to scale. It’s like realizing there is no Santa Claus — do you shout it from the rooftops, or do you play dumb because uttering the words may mean presents evaporate? Like its protagonist, Tiny Furniture is perfect in its imperfection, and sensibly sensitive in a world both insensible and insensitive.

Tiny Furniture is currently available on Netflix Instant Streaming. Those who appreciate it there would be smart to check out the Criterion Collection DVD or Blu-Ray (released in February 2012), which includes Dunham’s 2009 debut feature Creative Nonfiction and four short films, all showcasing an early look at her developing skills as a deadpan writer and comedian. Tonight (Sunday, April 22), HBO is airing the second episode of Girls, the excellent new original series created by, written by, and starring Dunham, and co-starring Karpovsky and the oh-so-funny Kirke. Those who missed the pilot can check it out here.

For more of Gary’s reviews and musings, visit garysundt.wordpress.com.
For more information on Gary’s work as a filmmaker, visit summertimekillersmovie.com.

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