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.