Tuesday 27 March 2012

A doll's house: "Tiny Furniture"

In the U.S., the writer-director-performer Lena Dunham has been lauded as a leading light at the tail end of the so-called mumblecore movement that emerged in the mid-Noughties; her star has risen to the point she's presently working on her own HBO series, to be produced by current comedy nabob Judd Apatow. In her feature debut Tiny Furniture, however, Dunham casts herself as a woman languishing near the bottom end of the social food chain: her Aura is a film theory graduate spending the first summer after graduation trying to obtain a foothold on the world (a guy; a gig; a reason to exist) from the base camp of her photographer mother's New York apartment.

According to her champions, what Dunham proposes is both a slightly more polished variation on the defiant (and quite often tedious) lo-fi of mumblecore, and - at the risk of sounding like one of Aura's term papers - a new aesthetic of femininity, ushering forth an ensemble of young women who are allowed to be curvy, lanky, blotchy, sweaty, or prone to snoring. Tiny Furniture was the indie feature most likely to be rounded up with last year's Bridesmaids in editorials about the new wave of funny women, so maybe it's no surprise Dunham caught Apatow's eye: both directors encourage the absolute absence of vanity in their performers, and - in Dunham's case - this extends to her own onscreen appearance.

More immediately apparent is how Dunham has taken the intimacy that always was one of mumblecore's more attractive aspects - that sense of movies made by and with (and often for) close family and friends - and used it to shape and describe, Woody Allen or Whit Stillman-style, a particular (privileged) social milieu. Aura and chums are girls who wear thriftstore or flea market fashions over their homemade tattoos, but still have access to daddy's credit cards when they need them; altogether too smart and East Coast to be a Hilton or Kardashian, they're nevertheless possessed of exhibitionist tendencies enough to post YouTube videos of themselves stripping to their underwear and cavorting in fountains, like NPR-listening Anita Ekbergs.

Aura spends a fair proportion of the film lounging around mom's apartment in a nightshirt and panties, in part because that's what she's most comfortable in, in part because she's yet to find a pressing reason to get dressed. Crucially, though, Dunham's girls are never merely decorative: she gives them funny, creative things to be getting on with, on a circumscribed scale that runs from the photographing of dollhouse furniture (hence the title) to the enthusiastic sampling of jellybeans in such a way as to create new, hybrid flavours. As shot by Jody Lee Lipes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Tiny Furniture also proves rather more framed and focused than the majority of mumblecore happenings, favouring scenes that find their way to a punchline or point, and visual flourishes like the gag with an airbed that speaks to its heroine's suddenly deflated ambitions.

The performers, too, seem attuned to what Dunham's getting at, in certain cases doubtless because they've actually had to live with it. We get an idiosyncratic double-act in the director's own, somewhat patrician mother (Laurie Simmons, a real-life photographer) and her droll sister Grace (a hybrid herself, of Roseanne's Darlene and Cybill's Zoey, if those comparisons are worth anything), supplemented by the wry haughtiness of Jemima Kirke as Aura's English rose friend Charlotte, a girl whose idea of a good time is to take some Ambien and watch Picnic at Hanging Rock. (Something about this relationship recalls that between Edie Falco's Jackie and Eve Best's Dr. O'Hara on Showtime's Nurse Jackie: as that very show's Merritt Wever has a minor role as Aura's erstwhile college roommate, evidently there's some creative osmosis going on.)

I don't believe Tiny Furniture to be as piercing or critical a breakthrough as Aaron Katz's Cold Weather, as mentioned in my Top 20 list from last year: it's still a micro-movie, its big climax a snuggle session between mother and daughter that serves as Dunham's duvet-day idea of rapprochement, and all its self-expression - this generation's need to share, at the risk of sharing too much information - may well prove too much for anyone who's long since abandoned updating their Facebook status. Nevertheless, it's an appealing, bright-eyed debut, and Aura's long, slow slouch towards figuring out whom she doesn't want to be may offer room for further growth and improvement yet: you could see Dunham's character(s) becoming as much a vehicle or vessel for the filmmaker's own concerns as, say, Antoine Doinel was for Truffaut from The 400 Blows onwards.

Tiny Furniture opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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