Aura is a young artist just out of college. She lives with her sister and her mother, who also happens to be an artist. Aura gets depressed, tries to get a job, tries to go on dates, and establish herself as an artist in a world of affected phonies. In the usual scheme of things this would be the kind of movie about a young woman finding her voice. But the dynamic at play here is more interesting than that. Lena Dunham, in her breakthrough second feature Tiny Furniture, has cast her own mother and sister in the film, and filmed in her family’s Manhattan apartment. Is this reality or fiction?
The title of the film is only mentioned in passing, but tracing its source leads you to what the movie is about. Dunham’s mother, Laurie Simmons, plays Dunham’s fictional mother Siri, but is playing a version of herself. Since the 1970s, Simmons’s work has used dolls, ventriloquist dummies and dollhouse miniatures to create a world of Lynchian domesticity and sexuality. Her photographs can be seen on the apartment walls in Tiny Furniture, and naming the film after her mother’s work presents this uncomfortable dramedy as a meditation on family and art.
What may be problematic for many viewers is that the movie can be deliberately grating. The film is populated with affected characters who spout out lines like, “I’ve always thought of myself as Tribeca’s solution to Marianne Faithful.” And that’s Aura’s her best friend! The characters, including Dunham’s family, may be affected, but the sibling and parental relationships feel real. As pretentious as everyone around her can be, Dunham’s character in the film is insecure and unpretentious. If this sounds like a Woody Allen movie you’re right, and Dunham makes numerous references to Allen’s work, but the Woodman has never exposed himself as figuratively and literally as Dunham does here.
The two-disc Criterion set is generous with extras that enhance appreciation of the feature and the director. A half-hour conversation with Dunham and author/director Nora Ephron is a fascinating look at what different generations of women have gone through as artists. Dunham also gives props to cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who gives the film a stylish look that one is not used to seeing from the Mumblecore School that inspired it. Lipes’s work as a director can be seen on two excellent and very different documentaries, NY Export: Opus Jazz and Good Times Will Never Be the Same.
A bonus disc covers Dunham’s film work before Tiny Furniture, including her first feature Creative Nonfiction as well as short films, all of which were made while she was at Oberlin College. Dunham has brought her family into her film work since her college years, and Simmons and painter Carroll Dunham feature prominently in one hilarious short. For the entire five-minute length of “Open the Door,” the camera is trained on Dunham’s apartment door. Dunham stands guard watching her parents arrive through a video screen, and she asks each of them in turn to recite lines for a film, the plot of which implicates her father as a drug dealer and her mother as a hapless enabler. It’s the kind of uncomfortably funny sort-of-reality and sort-of-performance art that’s typical of Dunham’s work. Tiny Furniture, like all of Dunahm’s films, can make you feel uneasy, and it can make you laugh, sometimes at once.