A fantastic article published this week addressed the dilemma that is Lena Dunham. A heralded new voice when her HBO show Girls premiered, Dunham has become one of those creators whose public persona inevitably — and, for many, damagingly — infiltrates the fictions they spin. Much as I try to separate artist and art, I’m not immune to the encroachment of external knowledge. I found Girls to be daring and insightful in its first season, but gradually looking past the external baggage wore me out. Correctly or not, I felt like I kept spotting Dunham’s defensiveness and festering animosities cropping up in the narrative and character choices. I do have some evidence, however, that my misgivings about Dunham’s work predated her more regrettable moments in the limelight. Before Girls (but after announcement of the partnership with Judd Apatow that led to the series), I reviewed Dunham’s debut feature, Tiny Furniture, for Spectrum Culture. Although loads of my writing is still housed there, I can’t find that particular piece. It may have gotten lost in the shuffle when the site changed platforms a few years back. Whatever the reason for its absence, I’ll take that as justification to reclaim it and share it in my own humble digital space.
The time immediately following college holds unique challenges. After the highly regimented structure of an existence spent toiling at academic pursuits falls away, the endless possibilities that remain stare back like a malevolent abyss. Forecasting from childhood, that openness sounds great — astronaut, cowboy, and fireman seem equally viable vocational pursuits, even pursued simultaneously — but in the harsh light of adulthood it’s tougher to choose a grown-up professional pathway. Hell, it’s hard to believe that being a grown-up has happened, or ever will. This purgatory of maturity is where Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture resides.
Dunham plays Aura, a young woman with a crisp new undergraduate degree in film theory. She returns from college in Ohio to move back in with her family in New York City. Her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), is an accomplished artist, and her younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), is enough of a prodigy that the possibility of Aura matching her accomplishments is dryly acknowledged as unlikely. In this environment, Aura’s sense of uncorrectable drift is only heightened.
As Aura tries to find her footing, she reconnects with her old friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a pointedly disaffected, proudly unmotivated young woman who can barely let a moment pass without dropping a hipper-than-thou reference to Picnic at Hanging Rock or Marianne Faithfull. Charlotte is Aura’s funhouse mirror reflection, just as detached from a socially acceptable personal trajectory, but embracing her meandering path with confidence and self-satisfaction. Aura is checked out because she doesn’t know how to meet the world. Charlotte, on the other hand, has gone that route because she’s already surveyed the world and decided it deserves little more than snotty contempt.
Kirke is terrific in the part, bringing a jagged authority to her scenes. Her performance is one of the movie’s stronger elements, but it also serves to illuminate one of its problems. In addition to casting herself as Aura, Dunham recruited her actual mother and sister to inhabit the corresponding roles on screen. They’re all fine, exhibiting a pleasantly unaccomplished quality suited to the themes and feel of the film. But there’s also a nagging sense that some added depth to the main performances would be beneficial. The procession of flat line deliveries can make it feel more like an early morning table read with especially tired actors instead of a finished movie. When Dunham is sharing a scene with Kirke, or Merritt Wever as her friend from college who’s planning to become her roommate in the big city, the distance between her acting and the performance she could be giving comes into sharp focus.
There’s a similar first draft quality to Dunham’s writing and directing too, although that proves far more winning. Judd Apatow famously courted Dunham to become part of his ramshackle troupe of comic voices after seeing Tiny Furniture, and it’s not hard to figure out what appealed to him. The film has the same sort of soft structure as Apatow’s directorial efforts, a preference for letting the uncomfortable messiness of the brutally real have priority over the construction of a clean, sharp narrative. Aura endures a multitude of humiliations, but they’re not dispensed as mounting farce. They just happen, and, in the moment anyway, getting chewed out for tardiness at a demeaning job doesn’t feel that much worse than having a long flirtation culminate with a quickie in the most demeaning place imaginable. Everything’s bad, and if that’s so, why be hung up on determining which things are worse?
The whole movie is a defeated shrug. Relationships shift like the wind, culture has dissipated so thoroughly that fame can be achieved without any accompanying material success, and epiphanies are as fanciful as the vague promise of living happily ever after. It’s entirely possible that the best anyone can hope for is a few moments of simple satisfaction here and there: a chance to share stories or be reminded that mistakes lose their impact as they fade from memory. Lena Dunham’s film doesn’t romanticize or draw anguish from these observations. Instead it discovers a sort of weary grace, a sense that maybe enduring is its own achievement.