Written, directed by and produced by twenty-something filmmaker Lena Dunham, 2010's Tiny Furniture casts Dunham in the lead as a young woman named Aura who has just returned to her native New York City after finishing college. Like most young adults who finish post secondary education, she finds herself at a bit of a crossroads, unsure as to what to do next with her life. She figures she should probably get a job, but she'd also like a relationship while her mother, Siri (Denham's actual mother, Laurie Simmons), more or less just wants her to not interfere with her own life and her sister, Nadine (Lena's real life sister, Grace Dunham), seems completely indifferent to any of this.
Aura's life gets more complicated when she and her best friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a rich girl who wants for nothing, head to a party where Charlotte introduces her to Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a nice young man who is just starting his career in the film industry. He's visiting New York to make some contacts after his homemade movies have generated some interest in him on YouTube. Due to a mix up with his bank, Jed finds himself without enough money to get a hotel for his stay, which conveniently coincides with Siri's business trip. Not surprisingly, Aura invites Jed to crash at her place while mom is out of town. Aura lands a job at a restaurant but doesn't stick with it, but catches the eye of Keith (David Call) before she quits. A one night stand with Keith that leads to nothing is a slap in the face and before you know it, she's trying to figure out what all of this means and where she fits in this big old crazy world of ours.
Tiny Furniture is a mixed bag as far as tone and structure are concerned. It starts off like a mix of neurotic Woody Allen style humor for the indy/college crowd but soon gets very introspective and at times even dark. You very definitely get the sense that Dunham has poured a lot of her own self and personality into the movie, and that aspects of it are probably autobiographical, which is likely the reason that the movie feels as reel as it is but the drastic shifts in tone result in a very uneven flow. Where the film really succeeds is in the acting department, with Dunham turning in a completely believable performance as Aura, though again, you get the impression that a lot of what she's doing here is simply playing herself. As such, the script and in turn the movie do a fine job of fleshing Aura out as a living, breathing, feeling human being and the fact that she often finds herself in situations that many of us can easily relate to doesn't hurt in that regard either.
The visuals are decent, if not particularly flashy. The contrast of Aura, a little on the pudgy side and not all that concerned with making herself up, in her mother's ultra clean apartment provides some interesting material to take in and you've got to give Dunham credit for putting herself in some rather unflattering positions in the film. This again adds to the aforementioned realism that is such an important part of what works about it. The problem is that the movie doesn't wind up going anywhere nearly as interesting as it could have, which results in some back and forth between amusing and depressing but not a whole lot else. Eventually this results in the movie repeating itself over and over again and it delivers an ending that doesn't do a whole lot to make up for that.
What Dunham has accomplished with this picture is admirable. Given her relative inexperience in the film industry and her youth not to mention that shoestring budget she used to put all of this together it's quite amazing that as much of Tiny Furniture works as well as it does. Unfortunately not enough of it succeeds to give this a whole lot of replay value. See it once to see what all the hype is about and to see a filmmaker with a lot of potential at the start of her game and keep your fingers crossed that the actual story will turn out better next time than it did this time around.
Criterion presents Tiny Furniture in a great looking 2.40.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer that probably gets as close as possible to accurately representing how the movie should look. Shot digitally on a Canon EOS 7D high definition camera, it has that sort of dry look that some digital productions show but you can't fault it for detail. Every shot, be it a close up or one taken from a long distance, shows all sorts of little bits and textures that help you get pulled into the film. Sometimes colors are a little bit on the warm side but you get the impression that this was intentional, but overall this is a strong presentation of the digital image.
The sole audio option on this disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with optional closed captioning provided in English only. This is a fairly dialogue heavy movie and not one with loads of sound effects so the rear channels don't get the work out you might hope for but as far as the clarity of the mix goes, it's spot on. Dialogue is consistently easy to follow and understand, the levels are well balanced, the simple but effective score hits all the right notes and everything comes across as clean and as clear as you'd want it to.
Extras kick off with a few featurettes, the first of which is the half hour Nora Ephron And Lena Dunham bit in which the director of the feature is interviewed by Nora Ephron. They cover the technical side of things such as shot composition and editing but also cover the performances and the writing behind the movie. Paul Schrader On Dunham is an amusing eight minute piece in which the man best known for writing Taxi Driver expresses his admiration for the film and for the young woman who made it.
Also included here are a quartet of short films made before Tiny Furniture. The first of these shorts is Pressure, a four minute short from 2006 in which three young ladies in a library discuss the mysteries of an orgasm. Open The Door is a five minute piece from 2007 is basically just a quick character based piece of improve shot for another project but not used ,while the five minute Hooker On Campus from 2007 shows us the trials and tribulations of the campus' hardest working lady. The fourth and final short is 2007's The Fountain which is a six minute short that shows us what happens when an eccentric young lady is stopped by the police while trying to take a bath in a public fountain. All four of these foreshadow the sort of quirky humor that would eventually take a more mature form in Tiny Furniture and are amusing enough that you'll want to take the time to watch them. Also included on the disc is the fifty-nine minute feature debut from Lena Dunham, Creative Nonfiction which was made while she was in college and released in 2009. Dunham introduces the film which tells the story of a college girl named Ella (Dunham) who obsesses over her possibly romantic relationship with roommate Chris (David Unger). This causes her to ignore everything else in her life, including the screenplay she needs to finish for class. Eventually she sits down to right and lets her conflicted emotions spill out onto the pages. Like the main attraction on this disc, it's a very self aware film but quite clever in its humor and in its depiction of college romance.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter stops. All of the supplements on the disc are in high definition. Inside the clear plastic keepcase is an insert booklet containing an essay on the movie and its creator by film scholar Phillip Lopate.
Tiny Furniture is a weird mix of quirky comedy and downright depressing slice of life reality. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but it's worth seeing once and Criterion have put together an excellent package for the movie. Lena Dunham's got no shortage of talent but this isn't the indy masterpiece that some have made it out to be. Consider this one a solid rental and hope her next project is a little more consistent.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.