This first feature by Lena Dunham is a frank and hilarious look at the self-promotion and solipsism of Gen-Y as it graduates and tries to find An Occupation. Tiny Furniture follows Aura (played by then fresh out of college Lena Dunham), a 22 year-old recent film graduate who breaks up with her “male feminist” college boyfriend, moves back to the Tribeca loft she shares with her artist mother Siri (played by her actual artist/photographer mother Laurie Simmons) and precocious sister (again actual sister Grace Dunham), and falls into a “post-graduate delirium” of crap jobs and crappier relationships. This may be the film’s problem – if the thought of watching the quarter-life crisis of a small group of ultra-liberal New York narcissists has you reaching for your gun, this may not be your chai latte. However, Dunham is as aware of the minutiae of Aura’s problems as you are, as evidenced by the comically honest send-up of so many hipster fads, and the title Tiny Furniture, which describes Siri’s occupation of photographing miniatures, but also works as a metaphor to suggest that this is not a film about big or serious problems. If Tiny Furniture were a hashtag, it would be #whitegirlproblems.
What Tiny Furniture so wonderfully sends up is the shallowness of online fame, and the anonymity of online eyes quick to critique; when Aura falls for Youtube sensation Jed the “Nietschian [sic] Cowboy” (played in a hilariously slimy manner by Alex Karpovsky), Aura notes that “he’s a little bit famous”, which Ashlynn (Amy Seimetz) undercuts with “in a, like, internet kind of way”. Dunham’s knowingness reveals elements of youthful paranoia. Everything is parodied, most obviously in playing a version of herself as the lead character, but also by using her own family and liberal background, and in pastiching her own short films. Dunham achieved online notoriety on Youtube through her 2007 short film The Fountain in which she strips off and brushes her teeth in a fountain at liberal arts college Oberlin in Ohio. “I saw that your dyslexic-stripper video got, like, 400 hits!” drawls the irritating “monologist” (Amy Seimetz) at a party, itself a send-up of Dunham’s 2007 short called Hooker on Campus. The motto, which Dunham may or may not be critiquing, comes from fucked-up and vulnerable arts brat Charlotte (Jemima Kirby): “You’re just so concerned with having things polished and perfect… Any exposure is good exposure”.
The film (and we) exist in a world where displays of taste and style represent yet another form of hyper-mediated capitalism. As such, the cultural landscape of this film is one where W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is referenced as easily as Cormac McCarthy, YouTube and Nietzche. This is a world of loft spaces, exuberant tattoos, performance art (“she’s a monologist”), and prescription meds. A potential love-interest is critiqued as “a little speck of granola on a home-made yoghurt” (who’d have thought dairy products and YouTube would come to define a generation?). Dunham both references and gently ironizes this world from the maturing eye of someone getting to grips with understanding it.
Tiny Furniture, much like the mumblecore movement it bears some similarities to in its use of non-actors and real settings is representative of a certain type of film, something Mark Grief would describe in his analysis of hipster culture as “works of art where the tensions of the work revolve around the very old dyad of knowingness and naiveté, adulthood and a child-centred world – but with a radical or vertiginous alternation between the two”. In between revealing all in skimpy underwear, using her own home, friends and family, and pastiching the New York hipster art world where one can seemingly curate a trendy exhibition at the flick of a switch, Dunham alternates between the two polarities which Grief describes: knowingness and naiveté, adulthood and a child-like innocence.
In bandying about references to hipster sociology and liberal arts wankers, I may be risking the danger of making the film sound even more unpleasant than it may already seem. Actually, in Tiny Furniture, the contents of the tin are far better than the label. Though the film’s characters are narcissistic, they are also warm and often likeable, or at least likably dislikable. 90210-by-way-of-Williamsburg’s Charlotte is particularly engaging as ‘Rich Girl with Problems’, and raffish pseudo-intellectual sous-chef Keith is incisively but subtly played by David Call – watching this in the cinema, I was mentally wagging my finger at the screen frantically thinking “yes, oh my god, he is such a type of twat – AHH!!”.
This film may appear to deal in tiny emotional furniture, but the reality is an acutely perceptive look at an admittedly privileged generational sub-strata trying to find its feet, and coming to terms with a changing landscape. In one of the most sharply observed aspects of the film, Aura anxiously compares herself to her mother’s artistic fame. Finding some of her mum’s journals in their comically minimalist white shelving unit, she hopes to find meaning in her mother’s journey at the same age, but instead raids the journal for material for her next YouTube video, in a seemingly symbolic comment on how one generation has adapted from the last. Aura’s desire to create films is believable, but her fluctuation between desire and boredom is frustrating. It is not just feelings of oppression from the past that Aura seems to be reacting to, but a sense of generational indeterminacy. The ‘minutiae’ of this film’s themes have something current to say about what it means to want to create art now, and how the prevalence of ‘hipster culture’ both asserts difference while being a homogenizing force.