"Self Portraits of the Artists as Dolls" reads a sign in the background of a Manhattan gallery opening in the indie comedy Tiny Furniture. The notice serves as a one-off gag in the margins, effectively tweaking the twee self-absorption of art world trends. With that line, Lena Dunham may be making a self-deprecating joke at the film in which she stars, wrote and directed.
After graduating from Ohio's Oberlin College, Dunham made Tiny Furniture about Aura, a film studies graduate fresh out of an Ohio college. Dunham casts her mother, sister and friend as Aura's mother, sister and friend, deliberately blurring the line between fiction and reality. Tiny Furniture proves to be a rickety fabrication even as it marks an impressive debut of a clever filmmaker in her early 20s.
The title refers to a female fondness for doll furnishings, which Aura's pals used to build in college and which her artist mother Siri (Laurie Simmons) photographs. The image of the precious, perfectly formed little household objects sharply contrasts with the real world Aura encounters outside of academe. Amusingly, Aura has already started to romanticize her university experience despite the fact that she's unhappy there, as a school chum points out.
Aura nurses a broken heart after the breakup with her collegiate fiancé, but she doesn't find a warm welcome in her mother's chic Tribeca apartment/studio. Siri and Aura's younger sister Nadine (Grace Dunham) make clique of tall bespectacled hipsters who treat Aura as an unwelcome guest in her former home. In the absence of support from her family, Aura reconnects with childhood friend-turned-obnoxious-free-spirit Charlotte (Jemima Kirke).
Dunham's script draws inspiration from the post-collegiate anomie of The Graduate with the romantic dilemmas of various Jane Austen stories updated as rom-coms. Aura befriends and flirts with Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a Chicago-based YouTube comedian who attends important-sounding meetings in New York but brazenly mooches off of people. When Aura takes a job as a restaurant day hostess, she flirts with a confident but skeevy sous chef (David Call). Could one of them be the standoffish but passionate Mr. Darcy to Aura's Elizabeth Bennet? Or neither of them?
Tiny Furniture doesn't follow the usual uplifting coming-of-age arc of setbacks followed by triumphs. Aura begins depressed, faces setbacks, feels increasingly vulnerable but stubbornly sticks to behaviors unlikely to free her from her rut. And while Dunham may be zaftig and ordinary looking compared to most Hollywood starlets — she could be a plump, glum sister to Anna Kendrick — Tiny Furniture maintains a matter-of-fact perspective on Aura's body and healthy sex drive.
As a director, Dunham crafts some memorable images. At one point, an upset Aura throws herself face down on her bed, while next to her, separated by a thin partition, we see Nadine's oh-so-perfect legs as she runs on a treadmill. The film's more confrontational scenes aren't nearly so confident, as if Dunham doesn't know what to do with her camera or her cast. When Nadine throws a party for her high school friends, Aura angrily declares that the teens are "out of control" when they're standing around, practically immobile. Aura's overreaction might be a joke, but the uncertainty communicates Dunham's storytelling limitations.
It would be easy to equate Aura with Dunham, but her surrogate self clearly lacks the savvy and drive of the filmmaker, who's created satirical Web series with titles such as "Tight Shots" and "Delusional Downtown Divas." But Aura does such a good job of engaging the audience's protective instincts, we cut Tiny Furniture more slack than we would a film by a more seasoned director. Dunham reveals such precocious talent with her debut, however, that she won't have to trade on sympathy for long.