Watch now on:
These days, the way the Internet covers Lena Dunham, you’d think she was a three-alarm fire rather than the singular artist she is. There seems to be a nonstop cacophony of both praise and derision tossed at the driving force behind HBO’s Girls, which continues its four-season run January 11. Whether it’s the debate regarding claims she makes in her best-selling book, or the clothes she chooses to wear or not wear on her show, Dunham is scrutinized in such a manner that you’d think she was running for office and not a TV show. Trying to focus on the artist underneath the distracting noise can be a challenge akin to listening to a folk concert during an air raid. Well, we have a strategy that might help: go back to the beginning and no, we’re not talking about the first season of Girls. Travel back to 2010, roughly two years B.B. (Before Brooklyn), a time when Dunham first perfected weaving comic tapestries that both reflected and deflected from her actual life. Try Tiny Furniture on for size.
Dunham’s first and so far only major film as writer-director (she made the hour-long Creative Nonfiction while still at Oberlin), Tiny Furniture teems with the same pathos, stumbling narcissism, and absolute belief in the right to remain pantsless recognizable to fans (and haters) of her TV show. But it also shows an intrinsic understanding of filmmaking and a unique and rock-solid comic sensibility that seems to have been birthed fully formed, Athena-like, only sans any sort of armor. Moreover, the film has two qualities in too short supply in pop culture, no matter the form: it’s really funny and unflinchingly true.
In the movie, Dunham plays Aura, a girl who seems a awfully like Dunham herself, an impression driven home by the fact her mother is played by Laurie Simmons, the New York artist who is Dunham’s actual mother, and her kid sister by Grace Dunham who is, well, you guessed it. Aura has returned home from college with a not-long-for-this-world hamster named Gilda, a crippling sense of entitlement, and a desperate need to connect with someone, anyone, whether it be a pair of indifferent suitors or a mother overly focused on her sister and her own art career. Aura’s solution is to find solace in her mother’s journals from when she was adrift in her 20s, searching for her own purpose and voice.
It is an ingenious way to tell what is essentially a mother-daughter tale, one set in an affluenza-infected TriBeCa filled with precisely decorated co-op lofts and shady scenesters who “are kind of a big deal on YouTube” or boast wickedly well-stocked medicine cabinets. Unlike some other self-sustaining comic actor-filmmakers, Dunham has the generosity to give the funniest lines to her co-stars, whether it’s her sister (“Poems are basically like dreams— something everybody likes to tell other people but stuff that nobody cares about if it’s not their own”) or her deliciously caustic childhood best friend Charlotte, played by Girls’ Jemima Kirk. “We can take Ambien and watch Picnic at Hanging Rock,” she proposes as means of female bonding.
While Dunham tends to be branded as belonging singularly to her generation, the fumbles and par-baked heartbreaks depicted here are familiar to anyone whose entry to adulthood was burdened with a strong sense of self but no real plan. Hers is a beautiful and honest kind of stumbling, with the romanticism laden on most coming-of-age stories replaced by a fractured realism. As for the kinds of controversies that make Dunham a favorite target of Internet antagonists? They are here, but it’s not much to get worked up about: truth is, the chief “ism” at play in Tiny Furniture, is the human kind, and that’s something we can all get behind.