There is an interesting interview segment with Paul Schrader on the Blu-ray edition of “Tiny Furniture” (2010). In this interview, Schrader discusses how “Tiny Furniture” fits into a new form of indie filmmaking called the Mumblecore movement, started in 2002 with Andrew Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” (2002). At its core, mumblecore films are shot with a miniscule budget, using handheld digital cameras and nonprofessional actors. However, one might question why mumblecore films are not associated with the regular indie genre; after all, mumblecore films on the surface are indie films. But as film theorists have rightly pointed out, mumblecore films mostly represent characters in their 20’s, set in a postcollege setting, often dealing with dislocation, identity crisis, relationship issues, among many other themes. Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” is the latest entry in the mumblecore genre. Contrary to what critics have to say, Dunham claims that “Tiny Furniture” doesn’t conform to the mumblecore formula.
With its supposedly alliterative title, director Lena Dunham’s story focuses mainly on the primary protagonist, Aura, played by the director herself. A recent art-school graduate, Aura comes back to her mother’s house in Tribeca. Clearly, she is defocused and emotionally drained after a setback from a failed relationship. She works at a local restaurant where she tries to develop a relationship with another man. We see Aura fighting with her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), and her sister over something that we can’t quite figure out. Perhaps she is looking to her family to cajole her, and instead, she finds no solace in their company; at least that is the impression we get. In that lies the problem in the film’s narrative structure. Whatever is going in Aura’s mind, we, as an audience, have to play a guessing game. Why can’t Aura just sit down with her sister and mother calmly and discuss the emotional problems at hand? What is driving the influx of negative thoughts in Aura’s mind? On one occasion we see Aura’s firm-mindedness when she tries to stop underage drinking at her mother’s home. In addition, we see a responsible Aura trying to help her ailing mother. But then there are times when we are surprised at the foolishness of her indecisive actions. For example, Aura has sex with a guy in the street, pretty much performing everything her friend tells her. Talk about following through on dumb instructions.
It is very difficult to buy into Aura’s situation, and her character is the biggest problem of the movie. Aura’s character is found lacking good judgment, and she fails to learn from her mistakes, making her character rather unappealing. She is shown as a failure in the beginning, and she comes out as a bigger loser in the end. Moreover, the film’s tag line tells us, “Aura wants to know why she’s having a very, very hard time.” Well, if Aura doesn’t know by the end of the movie, then we certainly don’t know, either. We are invited to Aura’s world to examine her situation and to find answers, but her meaningless meandering journey offers no hope. Amplifying Aura’s troubles by using a double adjective, “very, very,” projects Aura in a dire need of help. In fact, Aura’s worries are all mental and can be solved, given the right environment. Nonetheless, none of the supporting characters have the wisdom or patience to address Aura’s issues.
That brings us to the performances. As I mentioned earlier, mumblecore films often incorporate nonprofessional actors, and given this, the assessment of the performances will swing widely. The performances, however, in “Tiny Furniture” are downright forgettable. Imagine this series of dialogue exchanges between the two characters:
Aura: “Have you ever done something other than taking photos of stupid tiny things?”
Aura: “Exactly…I hate you…I hate you.”
The dialogue delivery is wooden, with expressionless faces. There are many exchanges like this, in which we question the intelligence of both the characters and script. Indeed, with inexpressive dialogue, we also get an unpleasant abruptness in the performances. Guaranteed, mumblecore films work on realism, but then what’s the purpose of realism if there are no real emotions?
“Tiny Furniture” tries too hard to present the problems of today’s young college graduates. Aura’s world is conceived in such a manner that we are forced to sympathize with her; but instead, our natural reaction is an automatic disconnect from Aura’s world. Is Aura’s mental state a cul-de-sac of depression? With a college degree and a bright future, it is certainly not. In the end, the director’s impulse to inform us about the emotional problems of college graduates is a bit overbearing.
“Tiny Furniture” arrives on Blu-ray through Criterion, framed in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and encoded using an AVC codec. The transfer looks bright at times, with whites dominating the film’s palette. The colors are vivid and deep, and detail is excellent, with consistent sharpness for close-ups and long shots alike. Being shot digitally, the 1080p transfer is crisp and clean.
Criterion has included a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, along with English subtitles. The film is a talkative affair driven mainly by the front channels. The dialogue is consistently sharp and audible. The music on the soundtrack activates the rear channels.
Criterion has included four short films by Lena Dunham. They are “Pressure” (2006), “Open the Door” (2007), “Hooker on the Campus” (2007), and “The Fountain” (2007). “Pressure” shows three girls discussing orgasms. “Open the door” feels like a deleted scene from the film. “Hooker on the Campus” shows a hooker on a campus. Finally, “The Fountain” shows a girl trying to wash herself in a fountain.
Next, there is an interview segment with Nora Ephron and Lena Dunham. Ephron discusses why “Tiny Furniture” moved her emotionally. Dunham talks about the story and how she created a script from her mother’s journals.
Up next, in “Paul Schrader on Dunham” we meet Paul Schrader, who talks about the mumblecore genre and how “Tiny Furniture” falls into this genre. He also tries to defend the movie and script, addressing the extreme audience reactions to the film.
Finally, we get “Creative Nonfiction,” Dunham’s first feature film, produced in 2009, during her days at Oberlin College, an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.
“Tiny Furniture” takes an extremely depressive view of Aura’s situation, without providing much hope. Aura does little to improve her state, as her character gets bogged down by a profusion of too many things in her life. Aura’s world is deliberately made convoluted and her problems inherently unresolvable. As a character study, “Tiny Furniture” fails to present the strength of its main character, even when she is burdened with an emotional turmoil.