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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rowing Against Hollywood

Cinemimi[Wednesday, March 07, 2012]
“Tiny Furniture” was recently released by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray.
Writer-actor-director Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” (2010) is a contemplative and witty urban dramedy about post-graduate delirium and being lost at the elite bohemian corners of New York City. Twenty-something Aura (Dunham) is a recent film studies graduate who moves back in with her younger over-achiever sister, Nadine, and their famous artist mother. Although it’s evident from her family’s fabulously chic Tribeca loft that Aura grew up in a highly privileged and sophisticated atmosphere, her home life is cold, dull, and devoid of intimacy. While Aura’s mother is mostly locked away in her studio, SATs, college applications, and high-school parties consume Nadine. At a party, Aura reconnects with her best friend from childhood, Charlotte, an eccentric and carefree slacker, who immediately becomes the self-appointed mentor of the soft-spoken Aura. That same night, Aura also develops a crush on an obnoxious hunger artist type whom she brings home to crash at her mother’s loft. Soon, Aura’s already wayward life gets further complicated when she falls in love with a sketchy and unavailable chef whom she meets at her unremunerative and soul-draining job as a daytime-hostess. But can Aura sort out her twenties before the expectations and pressures of adulthood crash her spirit for good?

In many ways, “Tiny Furniture” is the timely modern bildungsroman for the recession generation, who are drowning in a rowdy sea deeply lacking in meaningful job opportunities. We live in such competitive times that most young people have more than one college degree and no job. It’s a new world order where even the prestigious degrees of the past, such as PhDs, don’t necessarily mean anything anymore; the big metropolises are populated with overeducated, overqualified, and unemployed PhD holders. This is the gloomy and all-too-real world succinctly depicted in “Tiny Furniture.” This is the industrial battlefield in which the film’s reserved but intelligent protagonist struggles to find meaning, stability, and some kind of a connection.

The most captivating aspect of “Tiny Furniture” is probably its sharp and spot-on dialogue, which perfectly reflects the manic psyche of the uber-intellectual yet aimless bohemian youth of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tribeca, without lapsing into hipster clichés. In her dialogue, Dunham demonstrates an impressive ability to capture realism, comedy, and drama all in the same sentence. And by casting her own mother and sister to play the mother and sister of her character, she brings a genuine intimacy to an already very personal (and semi-autobiographical) film, which consists of many tight shots, a small cast of method actors, and a hyper-naturalistic mise-en-scène.

With Aura, Dunham creates a relatable and distinctive female character who aggressively rows against all the plastic stereotypes that Hollywood Cinema inflicts on us. Aura is average-looking with meat on her bones; she is neither a wallflower nor a bombshell. She is smart and articulate, yet shy and modest; she is artistic without being a hipster clone. In other words, she comes across as a real person and not an altered and glamorized silver-screen zombabe. More over, in the style of phallocentric sex comedies like “Superbad” or “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” most of the humor in the film comes from Aura’s sometimes pathetic, sometimes heartbreaking, mostly misguided attempts to flirt and/or hook up with the two apathetic man in her life. Arguably, this is the most progressive, bold, and thought-provoking aspect of the film, since “Tiny Furniture” shows no shame or reservations towards explicitly depicting female sexual frustration (which is still a taboo theme in the unreconstructed world of Hollywood Cinema), in addition to exposing the emotional vulnerability and social awkwardness of Aura.

Aura may be the film’s focal point, but the other characters are equally idiosyncratic and remarkable. In particular, Aura’s mischievous partner-in-crime Charlotte is one of the highlights of the film. Played brilliantly by Jemima Kirke, who owns every scene she appears in, Charlotte is a sarcastic, strong-willed, and quirky female character of a kind rarely seen in Hollywood Cinema. But Dunham by no means displays strong gender biases. All of the characters in “Tiny Furniture,” both male and female, are flawed.

A bohemian and chatty mumblecore movie, “Tiny Furniture” humbly exhibits why we have and need independent cinema: to make heard the iconoclastic voices of those rejected by Hollywood. The Criterion Collection’s packaging and presentation of this film meets its usual impeccable standard. But most noteworthy is the gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, which is simply hypnotic. The colors are so vivid and the details so sharp as to instantly draw the viewer into the world of “Tiny Furniture.” Additionally, both the DVD and Blu-ray include extras such as a brand new interview with Dunham in which she talks about filmmaking and autobiography with writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, an interview with writer-director Paul Schrader, Dunham’s first feature film “Creative Nonfiction” introduced by the director herself, and four previously unreleased short films by Dunham.

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