Netflix Movie Month: "Tiny Furniture" Review

Photo Credit: IFC Films

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Rating: NR
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: March 30, 2012
Directed by: Lena Dunham
Genre: Comedy / Drama

Before Lena Dunham became famous for writing, directing and starring in the television show "Girls," she created "Tiny Furniture," the story of an artistic family living in New York City and the daughter who returns home after graduation. Like "Girls," Dunham writes, directs and stars in "Tiny Furniture." Also like "Girls," this story centers on a recent college graduate trying to figure out how she fits into the larger world. "Tiny Furniture" is in many ways the work of a writer and director who is learning her craft, but it is also charming, hilarious and well worth watching.

"Tiny Furniture" tells the story of Aura (Dunham), who must return to her family home after she graduates from college. She expects a warm welcome, but finds that her family wants her to move out and move on. Aura's mother (Laurie Simmons), a photographer who works with the tiny furniture of the film's title, is too busy with her own career to pay attention to her daughter's struggles. Aura's younger sister (Grace Dunham) does not want Aura back in the house and makes frequent attempts to push her away.

Every time Aura tries to build a new life for herself, it falls back in her face. Instead of using her college degree and pursuing a career as a film director, Aura takes the only job she can find, answering phones at a restaurant. She tries dating, but learns that the men around her are playing by different rules. She even attempts to connect with old friends, only to discover that their lives are already drifting away from hers.

The film's primary subplot involves Aura's relationship with her mother. Early in the story, Aura discovers her mother's old diaries. She spends much of the film trying to ask her mother about these diaries and learn more about her mother's early life. She is desperately seeking advice about how to transition from childhood to adulthood. However, Aura's mother continually dismisses Aura's requests and fails to connect with her daughter. Only at the film's end do mother and daughter begin to build a better relationship.

The film also includes a secondary subplot in the form of Aura's new friend Jed (Alex Karpovsky), who claims he is "a big deal on YouTube" and quickly works his way into Aura's life, even taking up residence in Aura's mother's bedroom while her mother is away. Although Jed appears to be more successful than Aura, and comes across as a potential love interest, Aura quickly learns that Jed is both lying to her and manipulating her to get what he wants.

The genius of "Tiny Furniture" is how well Lena Dunham captures the experience of life after college graduation. Many young people are likely to be familiar with Aura's difficulties and frustrations. Dunham always makes it easy to sympathize with Aura, even when Aura is making choices that get in her own way.

"Tiny Furniture" also brilliantly depicts the joy and frustration of close family relationships. Lena Dunham cast her real-life mother and sister as Aura's mother and sister, and gives us an on-screen portrayal of three people who clearly spent many years living in each other's company. When Aura bickers with her sister or argues with her mother, it feels authentic and honest. When the three family members find time to relax and laugh with each other, it feels equally real.

If "Tiny Furniture" has a flaw, it is that the film is paced too closely to real life. Dunham wants viewers to feel Aura's boredom as day after day goes by. The film has many laugh-out-loud hilarious moments, most of them focused on the interactions between Aura and her mother and sister. It also has long stretches of silence, during which Aura sits alone, waiting for her life to start. 

Dunham's attempts at verisimilitude, including Aura's long stretches of boredom, are what make "Tiny Furniture" the work of a filmmaker who is still learning her craft. Dunham has since learned how to pace stories and how to show a character's emotions without literally stopping the action. Viewers who sit down to watch "Tiny Furniture" need to expect a few rough spots and slow moments, but will be rewarded by Dunham's clear portrayal of family life and human relationships.

Viewers who have recently graduated from college are likely to enjoy "Tiny Furniture" very much. Fans of Lena Dunham's "Girls" television series are also likely to enjoy this movie. It is an essential part of the Lena Dunham canon and a brilliant example of a talented director's early work. Some language and scenarios make it unsuitable for younger viewers.

Rating: 3 out of 5