Monday, December 13, 2010

Tiny Furniture

A 24-year-old triple threat (writer, director and actress) with a sharply honed sense of humor, Lena Dunham makes films that land like a flurry of darts. It’s fun to watch her puncture deserving targets, like hipster poseurs who love the idea of being artists more than they love making art. In the best of her work, there’s also a warmth and maturity, a bemused acceptance of her characters’ flaws and insecurities, that softens us up and makes those darts land even harder. Because, unlike the snark that so often passes for wit these days, Dunham’s social satires don’t just make us snicker, they make us wince in recognition too.

A product of the New York art scene (she went to Brooklyn’s arty St. Ann’s school, which she describes as a creative haven, “like Hogwarts, basically,” and her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a fine-art photographer), Dunham knows a thing or two about both real and wannabe artists. In Tight Shots and Delusional Downtown Divas, the Web series she started out with, and now in her films, Dunham seems to be creating a satiric version of her own life, playing characters who presumably share her ambitions and insecurities but have little or none of her self-awareness and talent.

Tiny Furniture, her breakthrough second feature, was voted best narrative feature at this year’s South by Southwest film festival. Made soon after her graduation from Oberlin, it’s the tale of a 23-year-old young woman adrift in what she calls “a post-graduate delirium.” Dunham was 23 herself when she shot the micro-budget but beautifully photographed film, which is set mostly in her mother’s light-filled Tribeca loft and co-stars her own mother and sister (both very good) as the mother and sister of her character, Aura.

Dumped by her boyfriend, Aura goes back home to New York only to find herself feeling like an intruder in her mother’s and younger sister’s apartment. She gets a part-time job, picks up a sort-of boyfriend who turns out to be a leech, clashes with her high school supernova sister, fights and bonds with her mom, and subjects herself to one masochistic situation or relationship after another while trying to figure out where she fits in the world.

An average-looking young woman whose rounded limbs and pasty complexion don’t fit the standard definition of beauty, Dunham shows herself in a bracingly unflattering light. Aura can be very pretty, but Dunham generally uses low camera angles and too-tight clothes to make her look slightly pudgy and awkward. That physical humiliation is brought to a head in the YouTube video that gave Aura a taste of fame. She’s proud of the video, kind of, since it’s her first attempt at public art and it earns her some attention. But she’s embarrassed too, since nearly all the attention consists of snide comments about her looks (she’s wearing a painfully unflattering bathing suit).

There’s nothing new about the brutality of the judgments young women face in adolescence — in public, in their closest relationships, and especially in the mirror — but Dunham shows us how it feels to run that gauntlet in the age of Internet, which exposes young people to mob-think on a global scale.

At first Aura seems like a natural loser in a callous, winner-take-all world, but Dunham’s slyly witty script soon fleshes out that first impression. Aura’s relationships with two former best friends — a high-maintenance friend from high school who she props up emotionally and a loyal friend from college who she left stranded when she moved to New York — show Aura’s own capacity for insensitivity and remind us of how quickly loyalties can shift in adolescent female friendships. At the same time, Dunham keeps her comedy of manners upbeat by showing us how Aura’s stubborn strength, her basic decency, and her complex but close relationship with her mother anchor her even as she flounders what is surely one of the least grounded points in her life. Like the TV theme song said, about another fictional young woman who set out to find herself after her boyfriend dumped her: She might just make it after all.

Written for TimeOFF

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