- Mother and child: Siri (Laurie Simmons) checks in with her prone daughter Aura (Lena Dunham).
Aura has just graduated from a liberal-arts school in Ohio (never cited, but Oberlin sounds about right), and is returning somewhat morosely to her childhood home. And some home! -- a huge, sleekly modern, live-work loft in Tribeca. Upon arrival, Aura is peeved that her artist mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), barely looks up from her work -- photographing high-heeled legs amid dollhouse furniture -- and that her younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), commences squabbling immediately. Welcome home -- and now what?
Well, Aura reckons her film-making career might take off: A school-project video -- in which the lumpy, pear-shaped Aura stands in her underwear by a public fountain -- has nearly 400 hits on YouTube. She re-connects with a former BFF, the gorgeous, sharp-tongued Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who's enthusiastic about most things if pills are involved. ("We could take Ambien and watch Picnic at Hanging Rock, or Christiane F," Charlotte offers.)
At a party, Aura meets Jed (Alex Karpovsky), whose own YouTube "satires" (he recites Nietzsche while seated on a rocking horse) have brought him to New York to take meetings. Aura crushes, with little result, except to become his caretaker. To prove her maturity, Aura takes a job as a day hostess at a trendy bistro -- and makes awkward passes at the restaurant's arch sous chef (he's into "Japanese tentacle porn"). When home, Aura pouts, whines and walks around the apartment in her underwear.
Tiny Furniture, a low-budget dramedy from writer-director Lena Dunham (who also portrays Aura), is in a sub-genre of similar works, smallish films about self-absorbed, "artistic" adults failing to launch (just this year, Greenberg and Cyrus). Essentially, Aura is the star of her own movie, but nothing is happening. She can't transform her everyday malaise into drama -- and nobody is doing her the courtesy of writing an interesting life for her.
Aura cycles between passive and passive-aggressive, and is blinded by her petty needs. "I just got out of school. This is a very hard time for me," she whines to her mother, while lying half-dressed on the floor. Some viewers may despise her, but Aura does have some winning qualities: She's funny, has bursts of enthusiasm and displays a refreshing lack of concern about her frequently revealed but less-than-fit physique. (I gotta give it to Dunham: She's fearless in this regard, and viewers will be shocked to see an ordinarily shaped woman starring in feature films.)
One suspects there's a good deal of autobiography in Aura's tale: In fact, Dunham's real-life mother (a successful art photographer) and sister play themselves, as does the Tribeca loft. Dunham has a great ear for the chip-choppy, post-ironic chatter of that certain set of always-on youth that no doubt comes from a lifetime of immersion. Furniture really is engaging for a good hour, before petering out into an awkward and unsatisfying end.
The movie isn't a flat-out indictment of today's coddled, aimless children. After all, Aura's sister seems very focused, and Siri (and her youthful diary which Aura reads) reflects on how scattered and directionless she was as a young adult. And despite its more rarefied milieu, Aura's tale resonates with universal themes about maturity, finding an identity and -- this never gets old -- finding decent friends and lovers, even if Aura fails at many of these challenges.
Viewers won't pity Aura: Given her privilege, smarts and connections, she will likely gel into someone functional, but her extended pupa state as depicted here is certainly a luxury she's unappreciative of. And for that, we can pleasurably indulge our own disdain. I'm not sure whether that's Dunham's intent: She clearly sympathizes with the shiftless blob she portrays, but she's also just produced a pretty watchable feature about it and that's no small accomplishment.
Starts Sat., Jan. 1. Regent Square