Perhaps this confession reflects badly on me, but writing a bad review is easier than writing a good one: snark flows more freely from my pen (or through my keyboard) than praise. When the subject is your average Uwe Boll or Michael Bay summer schlockbuster, a bad review is the best kind: it will have absolutely no effect on the film’s box office prospects, is unlikely to hurt someone’s feelings, and is devilishly fun to write (see, for example, my review of last summer’s The Expendables).
When it’s a low-budget indie, however, a bad review is a different beast altogether: it’s not much fun, and at times even a cause of considerable guilt, to savage a first-time filmmaker’s best efforts. So I have tried to be as gentle and open-minded about Tiny Furniture (opening this coming Friday, December 10, at the Shattuck Cinemas) as possible—while keeping in mind the maxim that it is, of course, cruel to be kind.
The first feature-length directorial effort of 24-year old New Yorker Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture, is a film obviously close to its creator’s heart. In addition to directing, Ms. Dunham stars as the film’s main character, wrote its screenplay, and shot it in the space of a month in her mother’s loft, all for a mere $50,000. Such effort and commitment in someone so young is both impressive and commendable. Unfortunately, the end result is a boring and utterly un-engaging exercise in 20-something navel-gazing.
Dunham plays the distressingly named Aura, a recent college grad back home in the Big Apple to regain her bearings and presumably figure out what to do with her life. Home is a massive loft doubling as workspace for artist mom Siri (Dunham’s real life artist mom Laurie Simmons) and younger sister Nadine (Dunham’s real life younger sister Grace). Aura reconnects with old best friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke, whose imperious presence provides the film with its best performance) and finds a new platonic friend in the shape of aspiring YouTube comedian Jed (Alex Karpovksy).
When mom and sis take a weeklong trip to visit colleges, Aura invites the penniless and homeless Jed to crash in the family loft. Jed takes advantage of her kindness, settles in, and is, of course, still around when the rest of the family returns, causing minor consternation. Meanwhile, Aura gets a job taking reservations at a local restaurant and gets involved with drug-addled horn-dog chef Keith (David Call). Relationship difficulties about which I couldn’t care less ensue.
You might think that casting yourself and your two closest relatives in a film would lend it a certain verisimilitude, but you would be wrong. Everything about Tiny Furniture stretches credulity, including Siri’s pristine, antiseptic all-white loft; the film’s dialogue, which channels the archest and least palatable aspects of Diablo Cody’s and Todd Solondz’ work; and a climactic sex scene in an exposed piece of sewer pipe. (Perhaps my own lack of imagination is at fault on this final point.)
With the exception of Kirke, the entire cast appears to have been dosed with downers before Dunham declaimed ‘inaction’. Dialogue is delivered with the distinct lack of enthusiasm associated with the beknighted style known as ‘mumblecore’, whilst dramatic and comedic developments either don’t develop or take detours into narrative dead ends.
It’s quite possible that I am simply too old to appreciate Tiny Furniture. If it was once advisable never to trust anyone over thirty, perhaps it is now considered best to render your art incomprehensible to them. There may be those amongst you who will derive pleasure from watching a young woman coping with the banalities of upper-middle class existence. Perhaps you will make connections with the characters that I couldn’t make. Next time I want to experience someone’s boring, uneventful life, however, I think I’ll just stay at home.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.