Tiny Furniture is Pretty, and Pretty Much Like a Lot of Other Movies

12/15/2010 8:57 AM |
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As the year in film draws to a close, Henry Stewart is scrambling to catch up with some of the movies he missed, so he can tell you whether to bump them up in your queue or feel guilt-free for deleting them. Today, he discusses Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture.

Dunham’s promising debut hints at Mumblecore, what with its post-college malaise and its supporting role for Alex Karpovsky. But its visual style is far finer, its ornate, psychologically evocative set designs captured (by Jody Lee Lipes) on a tripod in Gordon Willis-like widescreen: book-lined walls in an apartment so modernly designed, so alienatingly white it feels like a spaceship. It’s no accident that Karpovsky’s character reads a Woody Allen hardcover before turning in.

What other movies does Tiny Furniture recall? Perhaps, most glaringly, Aazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man, not only for its downtown setting and its child returning to the nest, but because Dunham cuts costs, as Jacobs did, by casting her real mother (Laurie Simmons) as “her mother” and her real sister (Grace Dunham) as “her sister,” and by using their real apartment as the film’s “apartment”.

Dunham, as lead actress, anchors the film with her deadpan wit, her lighthearted charm and her wry cheer; she keeps an airy narrative from simply floating away. (Perhaps most appealingly, unlike many of her mumbling contemporaries, she doesn’t spend the whole movie staring at her own bellybutton.) But if the movie feels youthful and directionless, that’s because it’s about being young and unmoored, about being 22, about being more likely to cross the East River than 14th Street, about being without a passion—without a “thing”. (The character has just graduated with a film theory degree, but she hates French films!?) Similarly, the movie doesn’t have much of a “thing”. In Film Theory, that’s called mimesis. It’s not always a sound approach.