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Though she's playing a character who's afraid of everything, including her own lack of ambition, the real life Lena Dunham is pretty damn fearless. At 24 years old she's releasing her second feature, Tiny Furniture, in which she doesn't just star as a character loosely based on herself, doesn't just cast her mom and sister in roles clearly based on her real relationships with them, doesn't just shoot the whole thing on a Canon still camera, but puts her character through such degradation, embarrassment and unflattering outfits that you want to cover your eyes on her behalf. But with that remarkable lack of vanity and a keen awareness of her characters' many flaws, Dunham has made a small-scale, modern answer to The Graduate with a touch of feminist concern and wicked humor that sets it apart from other autobiographical indie efforts.
Yes, Aura (Dunham) is a whiny pain in the ass who has no idea how good she has it when she graduates from tony liberal arts college Oberlin and returns home to loaf around the expansive Tribeca loft where her artist mother (Laurie Simmons) and high school aged sister (Grace Dunham) are settled into a rhythm that Aura can't quite fit into. Yes, she's making one bad decision after another, from allowing a slacker friend-of-a-friend (Alex Karpovsky) to crash in her house in the vain hopes he'll sleep with her to falling under the wing of a pretty, blithe and monstrously entitled childhood friend (Jemima Kirke) who only encourages Aura's self-involvement. And yes, Tiny Furniture is one of those indie efforts in which characters don't seem to learn that much, ending on a note of mundane uncertainty that suggests more than anything that the articulate, smart and aimless Aura will keep regressing in spirals for the rest of her life.
But while it's easy to look the surface of Tiny Furniture and write it off as the indulgent, pitiful whine of a privileged generation, Dunham is way ahead of that complaint, making her film as a sneaky satire of everything from competitive mother-daughter relationships to the New York art scene and meaningless bits of fame accumulated online. The film is little more than a series of conflicts and conversations that feel loose and improvisational, but Dunham is a careful screenwriter, building up our expectations of Aura and constantly forcing us to revise them as her confidence, maturity and ambition vary wildly scene to scene. They're maddening traits for a movie character, sure, but also true to life. Just two years after college graduation herself, Dunham has picked up on some of the more ridiculous parts of her world-- the instant hazy nostalgia for college life, the repetitive arguments with younger siblings who have the whole adventure ahead of them, the meaningless jobs that feel like the only lifeline-- and skewered them in a way that's both sympathetic and merciless. The film runs a little longer than it needed to, diluting some of the satirical impact, but it is often far smarter about the minor challenges of youth than most films by directors 20 years past that age.
Dunham is a better writer and director than actress-- Aura's flat affect is frequently alienating, and it's hard to read the subtle shifts in her character, particularly in a climactic final scene with her mother. But she takes great advantage of her real-life relationship with her mom and sister for some hilarious scenes of conflict, and showing an astonishing lack of vanity as she films herself in various states of undress and from unflattering angles, Dunham presents an on-screen female character who's at the very least unusual, and maybe an odd heroine for the generation that hasn't yet been able to define itself onscreen. Tiny Furniture isn't essential filmmaking--more like a calling card for a director with years of promising work ahead of her--but it's surprisingly insightful and funny, an easy watch for indie film fans curious about the next big thing.