Tiny Furniture takes me back to 1937 and The Awful Truth's delightful romantic dilemma. Which guy will the young New York gal choose, safe Ralph Bellamy or dashing Cary Grant?
There are important differences. For one, Irene Dunne favored ball gowns in The Awful Truth, but the young New York gal of Tiny Furniture, Aura (played by writer-director Lena Dunham), wears panties and unflattering T-shirts as she shuffles around her mom's apartment. For another, Aura's love triangle doesn't present her with quite so fascinating a choice. She can either go with the dull, self-absorbed chef (David Call) or the dull, self-absorbed YouTube comedian (Alex Karpovsky).
If you've read much about the entertaining Tiny Furniture, you already know that Dunham has been feted for blurring the line between fact and fiction. Dunham's mother, Laurie Simmons, plays Aura's mother, Siri; both Simmons and Siri are artists who photograph tiny furniture. Dunham's sister, Grace, plays Aura's sister, Nadine; both Grace and Nadine are prizewinning young poets. Like Aura, Lena Dunham went to college in Ohio. (The film begins as Aura finishes school and moves back in with her family.) Like Aura, Dunham filmed herself in a fountain and posted the clip to the web, where it received derisive comments.
Dunham's casting and writing strategies seem very contemporary. These days, reality television and social networking complicate our understanding of what's made up and what isn't, what's private and what isn't. On the other hand, Dunham isn't really doing anything new. Larry David has mined similar formal territory in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and back in the 1930s Jack Benny did likewise in his radio sitcom. And despite its low-budget indie trappings, Tiny Furniture tells a pretty conventional story with conventional elements, right down to the love triangle and the heroine's wisecracking best friend, played marvelously by Jemima Kirke, who steals every single scene she's in.
The important question is, has Dunham made a good movie or what? The answer: Oh yes. Tiny Furniture is startlingly perceptive and nuanced, and it's also quite funny and not a little sad. Like Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, Dunham has an excellent feel for educated twentysomething Americans who are quick with a quip.
I'd even say that as Baumbach did in the 1990s with Kicking and Screaming, Dunham has crafted an acute yet miraculously loose statement about a generation of young people. It's a statement that's very much of its time: Aura isn't the first person to flail after finishing college, but one reason she's struggling is that in this recession-wracked economy, she's discouraged about finding a good job. "We picked the worst possible time to graduate," someone says.
The triumph of this statement is that Dunham isn't self-conscious about making it. She sticks to telling interesting stories about her interesting characters and lets the zeitgeist take care of itself.