Written and directed by: Lena Dunham
Before there was Girls, Lena Dunham’s mildly-comedic, mildly-melancholic brand of stories-about-nothing was seen in her film Tiny Furniture. While not technically a prequel to Girls, it might as well be. The protagonist Aura (Dunham) is fresh out of college, and beginning to be interested in employment and independent living while nonetheless un-thrilled about the perils of adulthood. The film also stars Girls cast members Jemime Kirk and Alex Karpovsky. Kirk’s character, Charlotte, might as well be her Girls character, Jessa.
Unlike Girls, the film also features two of Dunham’s relatives. Her sibbling Grace plays Aura’s sister Nadine, and her mother Laurie Simmon plays Aura’s mother Siri. These characters draw heavily on the biographies of the actors who play them. While in Nadine’s case, the result is a likeable and entertaining sibling rival for Aura, in Siri’s case this approach is questionable.
Siri is a successful photographer, and that is seemingly the only career she’s ever had. Siri’s professional identity throws off what viewers might anticipate in a story about a recent college graduate struggling to face adulthood. One might expect Aura’s mother to give her a hard time about her head-in-the-clouds dreams of being an artist. As an artist herself, however, Siri can not judge her daughter and is therefore quirkily patient with Aura’s idiosyncracies. While, theoretically, Siri’s characterization makes her an interesting, novel figure, in practice her contradictory roles as mother and free-thinking artist negate each other. Siri is just impatient enough with Aura to allow some mother-daughter tension to simmer. This impatience is not enough, however, to truly drive fear into Aura, nor is it absent enough to make Siri’s tolerance for her daughter a comic trope.
Tiny Furniture is a subtle, realist, low-action film. In order to work, such films usually need to stumble upon some minimal form of a plot arc. In Paterson, this manifests in the final drama over Paterson’s notebook. In Lucky , the protagonist’s story is given meaning after he attends the birthday of his bodega owner’s son. Tiny Furniture’s plot arc seems to be structured around Aura’s relationship with Siri, however, and because of the weird middle ground between antagonist and supporter that Siri inhabits, the negotiation of her “dilemmas” with Aura doesn’t truly feel like a fitting focal point for the entire film to revolve around.
I do not mean to give the impression that Tiny Furniture is a bad film. I enjoyed parts of it, and would categorize it as on the cusp of being very good, but burdened by subtle mistakes. Aura is simultaneously vulnerable and privileged, a character dynamic that Dunham explores again and more effectively through Hannah Horvath in Girls. The problem with Dunham’s writing of this identity, however, is that she never thoroughly explores its highs and lows. For instance, even though Aura would rather go into the arts than pursue a practical career we are never really led to see the zaniness of her imagination, her level of drive to pursue the arts, or, as previously mentioned, a clash with her mother (or another “real world” figure) over her impracticality.
Tonally, however, Aura is effectively portrayed by Dunham. She is joined by other engaging characters including the regally rebellious Charlotte, snobby but likeable sister Nadine, literary hipster-bro Keith (David Call), and mysterious youtuber Jed (Karpovsky). These characters together form a dynamic universe, one which Dunham imagined for herself in a way that many viewers (especially those in the college and immediately-post-college phases of their lives) no doubt do as well. What would have made this film a classic, more than just a prequel to Girls? Oddly enough, more hipsterdom, more youthful entitlement, and perhaps (since it is described as shaping the lives of Siri and Aura alike) more tiny furniture.