Winner of the narrative feature prize at the SXSW Film Festival, “Tiny Furniture” should strike a responsive chord in anyone who remembers — or is experiencing — that post-college period in life when you’re impatiently eager to invent yourself, yet hesitant to get started. Written and directed by newcomer Lena Dunham, who also plays the lead role, this technically polished indie often feels like a semi-autographical effort by a filmmaker trying to work out issues in her art that she’s still confronting in life. But that, too, may help the pic connect with auds during limited theatrical exposure.
Dunham plays Aura, who, having broken up with her b.f. and produced a sparsely viewed YouTube video as well as earned a film studies degree from a Midwestern university, has returned to her family’s Tribeca loft. She’s determined to emerge from the shadow of her successful artist mother (Laurie Simmons, the filmmaker’s real-life mom) and stifle sarcastic criticism from her ultra-ambitious younger sister (Grace Dunham, the filmmaker’s real-life sibling) by striking out on her own. Until she can figure out just how to do that, however, she’s resigned to moving back into her old room and taking a job as a restaurant hostess.
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The wispy plot proceeds at an unhurried pace, as events unfold with a randomness more apparent than real. Indeed, it’s easy to overlook until the final credits roll just how firmly Dunham is in command of her material, and how subtly she sustains a palpable sense of narrative momentum even as her low-key dramedy often seems as adrift as the character Dunham plays.
There’s a homemovie quality to the pic, and not just because Dunham filmed most of it in her parents’ Tribeca apartment. But there’s also a solid ring of emotional truth in many scenes, particularly those in which intelligent characters behave childishly — their spontaneity sometimes laced with cruelty — and clever turns of phrase are employed as weapons.
Fairly early on, Aura attends a party where she meets Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a passive-aggressive young filmmaker in need of a place to crash while he’s in town “for meetings.” (His calling-card Internet shorts are near-insufferable, which may be Dunham’s way of suggesting that, yes, of course, he’s bound to strike it big.) That Jed is able to effortlessly charm her is just one telltale sign of her neediness. Another indication: Aura falls for another elusive fellow, restaurant co-worker Keith (David Call), leading to a payoff scene that is at once hilarious and heart-wrenching.
While directing herself in a demanding role, Dunham displays a notable lack of vanity on either side of the camera. Neither model-thin nor obese, she does little to glamorize herself — even during a fleeting nude scene — and less to make sure Aura remains consistently likable. The character behaves badly, or at least heedlessly, on more than one occasion, and Dunham deliberately withholds information, leaving it up to the aud to suss out her motivations. We’re never told why Aura grows increasingly distant from a formerly close college classmate (Merritt Wever) while at the same time reuniting with a shallow high school friend (played with fearless brio by Jemima Kirke). Perhaps, pic implies, Aura can’t always explain her actions, not even to herself.
“Tiny Furniture” boasts a first-rate supporting cast — Karpovsky and Kirke are standouts — and nimble HD lensing by Jody Lee Lipes. (The title, by the way, refers to props used by Aura’s mom in her photo art.) What it doesn’t have, to its credit, is a neat conclusion. In the end, the film appears to suggest that Aura likely will feel free to keep searching for herself, repeating mistakes and making new ones, because she has all the time in the world.