‘Tiny Furniture’ By Lena Dunham

After I reviewed Lena Dunham’s first film ‘Creative Nonfiction‘ (2009), I knew I wanted to review Lena Dunham’s break out film ‘Tiny Furniture’ (2010). It has been said that the high praise received for ‘Tiny Furniture’, led the Creative Writing graduate to receive the notoriety needed to grab the attention of HBO (producer of GIRLS). The film premiered at South by Southwest, which led to it being awarded Best Narrative Feature.

The bildungsroman follows twenty-two-year-old Aura during her ‘post graduate delirium’. Aura returns after studying film studies at a Midwest liberal arts college to her New York family home.

The film shows considerable growth from ‘Creative Nonfiction’, released only one year earlier. Many similarities, as with lots of Dunham’s work, arise. Again Dunham includes a great deal of nudity, a central character who is (we can only assume) similar to Dunham, a focus on sexual relationships and ‘coming of age’ themes. Many of these factors are present in  ‘GIRLS’, ‘Tiny Furniture’ and ‘Creative Nonfiction’.

‘Tiny Furniture’ illustrates considerable finesse in the cinematography. No longer are we subjected to bad lighting and the wavy hand held camera of ‘Creative Nonfiction’. The shots are often wide and there is impressive framing of interior space. Scenes within Aura’s slick TriBeCa apartment are powerful. The costuming emphasizes Auras black sheep status within her household. The mis-en-scene places Aura, often shown without pants and with unkempt hair, against a slick, white, modernist apartment. This juxtaposition of clean and derelict, demonstrates how Aura is seen in the household; as disruption of order and bringer of chaos to an otherwise idyllic household.

Tiny Furniture is filmed in a mumble core style. Dunham often chooses to cast from her inner circle and use non-actors. Within this film it definitely works. There are strong performances made by both Aura’s sister and mother, played by Dunham’s real life sister (Grace Dunham) and mother (Laurie Simmons). The scenes between the family are natural and organic. Their lack of acting training is unnoticeable, which is either a testament to their innate acting abilities or Dunham’s directing prowess. The ability to get great, natural performances out of non-actors is no feat to be laughed at. Additionally, the physical resemblance of both Grace Dunham and Laurie Dunham (they are both tall, thin and clean) in comparison to Aura further reifies Aura’s otherness in the family context.

Alex Karpovsky and Jemima Kirke from GIRLS are featured in the film. Karpovsky (Ray Ploshansky in GIRLS) plays Jed, a YouTube celebrity called the ‘Nietzchian Cowboy’ who stays with Aura. Jemima Kirke (Jessa from GIRLS) plays Charlotte, plays Aura’s friend since birth. Charlotte is a very similar character and displays very similar mannerisms to Jessa. Interestingly however Charlotte is portrayed as an annoying overbearingly friend, while Jessa is more of an aloof flaneur.

In terms of storytelling, I feel what really ties the movie together thematically is Dunham’s discovery and reading of her mothers diaries, written at the same age. It is through these diaries that we see that no matter what generation, the twenties are somewhat lost, meaningless and yet meaningful discovery years.

The films ending is poignant and solidifies an otherwise character driven narrative. Aura and her mother lie in her mother’s bed, a contested space that symbolizes her mothers approval.

Aura recants the tale of how she has earlier had unprotected sex with a man in a pipe on the street. Aura’s mother shows concern about her lifestyle choices. Aura questions her mother about the people who she wrote about in her diaries. The mother, who has often been shown as harsh and unsympathetic to Auras choices, hardly remembers them but when provoked begins to tell of strange encounters with sometimes toxic friends.

What I suppose I’m most attracted to in Dunham’s work is her complete lack of vanity in her storytelling. Every character is both glamourized and reduced to there most annoying trivial form. Although her characters are clearly self-obsessed, there self-obsession isn’t exaggerated and they make no apologies for it. What comes through in all Dunham’s films is a lively mind and a great creative capacity.

Tiny Furniture is a film that is well worth a watch.

Have you seen Tiny Furniture? What did you think? How do you see it in the larger context of her other work?

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Lena Dunham’s First Film

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NOTE: This post was re-published in American website Thought Catalog. You can see it here.

Creative Nonfiction is a student film directed, written and edited by Lena Dunham, creator of Girls and overall ‘talent of the moment’. I stumbled upon Creative Nonfiction while doing some late night stalking (YouTube is an infinite treasure trove of information).

The student film was obviously very low budget and it seems to have been filmed exclusively at Oberlin College, Ohio. Despite shaky hand held cameras and actors looking directly into the camera, it sustained my attention for its one hour running time, a real feat for such a low budget film.

COMMENTS

The film shows an endearing naivety and rawness. Creative Nonfiction could be called cinéma vérité as much of the dialogue seems improvised and most of the actors are less than professional. The characters and situations ring true. The script was probably, like much of her other work, based off her real experiences.

We see the beginning of Hannah Hovak (from Girls) in Ella. Similar situations and themes become apparent: unrequited love, awkward sex and panache for integrating nudity. The interweaved screenplay is interesting. It’s more experimental than shown in Girls and illustrates that Dunham has an art house edge, which she has not shown before. After watching the film I feel more confident in Dunham’s talent as a filmmaker.

SYNOPSIS

The story follows college student Ella, who begins allowing her friend Chris to sleep in her bed. Chris has mold growing in his room and doesn’t want to sleep there. Ella is confused about the situation and confides in her friend Carly who suggests that he probably likes her.

Ella makes a move, after drinking at a study session, only to be rejected by Chris. He tells her that he doesn’t want a girlfriend. He does, however, agree to make out with her. Chris and Ella continue to share a bed. One night Ella tells Chris she doesn’t mind if they have sex. Chris declines, explaining that Ella once drunkenly told him that she was a virgin.

Ella goes to a music gig and sees Tyi from her psychology class. She goes home early because she realizes she hasn’t left a key out for Chris and is concerned that he will have no place to sleep. That night, Carly asks if she can sleep in Ella’s room because she has been feeling unattractive and lonely, lately. Ella confides in Carly that she is beginning to feel dismissed by Chris. Carly consoles her and tells her she doesn’t like Chris’ attitude towards women. Later, Ella goes to return nail clippers to Carly, only to find Chris and Carly in bed together.

Ella cuts up a picture of Carly and leaves a threatening message under her door, all with strong encouragement from her friend Edie. Ella emails Tyi and asks if she can borrow a psychology textbook off him. Tyi and Ella have a conversation about families that eventually leads them to have sex. Tyi begins to talk as if he and Ella are in a relationship. Ella is put off and leaves. Ella goes to confront Chris and asks him if she has done anything wrong. He tells her that she hasn’t, but that she can be very ‘motherly’.

Ella and Chris in their shared bed.

Ella and Chris in their shared bed.

The entire story is interweaved with footage from Ella’s screenplay that she is writing to qualify for a screenwriting class. In the screenplay, a high school student is having an affair with her English teacher. The affair begins because he loves her poetry. He abducts the student and traps her in a cabin in the woods for three years. The teacher never has sex with her, but ties her up to a typewriter so she must constantly write. She is not unhappy but under a ‘spell of creative happiness’.

When she escapes, she meets a militant feminist who tells her not to tell the police. The militant feminist drops the girl off in a town in army fatigues.  She explains her situation to a young punk runaway. The runaway lets her stay at her squat and dyes her hair blue. But the teacher finds the pair. The punk girl tells her to hide and she’ll get her after he’s gone. The teacher offers the punk drugs to tell her where the girl is. She eventually reveals the girls whereabouts, but the girl has already hitched a ride with a trucker.

The girl gets dropped off at a diner and a fisherman buys her a coffee. They have a conversation and he offers to let her stay with him. The fisherman is very sweet and they fall in love. The girl loses her virginity to him. When the teacher again finds her, the fisherman is sad but knows that she must flee.

Creative Nonfiction ends with Ella waiting to go home for vacation. She tells Edie that she has finished her screenplay and can’t wait to get home. Ella explains that at the end of the screenplay the girl cuts off all her hair and dyes it black. The girl takes a bus to the desert but the teacher shows up in the desert. The girl pulls a gun out from her handbag and shoots him. He dies and she walks away, ‘moving forever into the horizon walking for miles becoming a spec’. The movie ends with a long take of Ella, as the girl, walking expressionlessly ‘into the horizon’.

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The girl walking into the horizon.

Do you like Lena Dunham’s style? Have you seen this film?