An original new voice in film is something rare and worthy of celebration. So let’s toast Lena Dunham, the gifted writer-director-star of Tiny Furniture, a low-budget ($25,000) comedy of touching gravity that finds god in the details, and the devil too. Dunham, recently graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio, plays Aura, recently graduated from college in Ohio, and living in a blindingly white loft in Tribeca owned by her noted photo-artist mom, Siri, played by Lena’s real mom, noted photo-artist Laurie Simmons. Siri, like Laurie, uses dolls and tiny furniture pieces set against human body parts to create images with psychological resonance. It’s not unlike what Dunham does with film. The names have been changed, but not to protect the innocent since no one in this hypnotic Rorschach test, gorgeously shot by Jody Lee Lipes, is guilt-free.
Dunham is hardest on herself. Aura considers herself an underachiever, adrift in a world where everyone else seems to have a purpose. She shares her mother’s loft with younger sister, Nadine, a prize-winning poet played by Lena’s prize-winning poet of a younger sister, Grace Dunham. Their conflict is as palpable as the depth of their connection. Aura takes solace with childhood friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke is a true find), a throaty-voiced sensualist who hooks her up with a nowhere job taking reservations at a chic neighborhood restaurant. There she meets Keith (David Call), a sous chef who hits her up for Vicodin and outdoor sex inside a large pipe; it defines the term mechanical. Aura is also attracted to Jed (mumblecore prince Alex Karpovsky), a careerist who crashes at the loft and talks of blowjobs and possibly taking his YouTube success as The Nietzschean Cowboy (you heard me) to the big time of Comedy Central. The guys are pricks, and Dunham laughs at them when she’s not feeling the hurt — and most potently when she is. The art world, especially the pseudo variety, takes its licks, but Dunham never pulls a superior act — Aura’s own undergrad video, featuring her unapologetically flabby body in a bikini, gets ample exposure. It’s part of Dunham’s resistance to the reign of skinny bitches and the sledgehammer power of artifice.
At one point Charlotte invites Aura over to swallow an Ambien and watch Picnic At Hanging Rock in sweet oblivion. I can see the appeal. But Dunham prefers to remain alert to possibilities. She references her comedy icons, notably Woody Allen, Larry David and every episode of Seinfeld. But she fearlessly ends her film with an openly emotional scene between Aura and her mother. (Simmons, excellent throughout, is transcendent here.) Both women lie awake in the dark, mustering the courage to stay close. In a film of verbal fireworks, silence heaves the telling last sigh. The movie isn’t perfect: Dunham is still striving, still finding herself among a clutter of inspirations. But Tiny Furniture, winner of the SXSW festival’s best narrative feature prize, gets under your skin. It’s the work of a filmmaker with a stunning future.