For as long as comedians have made movies, we have loved watching them getting repeatedly kicked in the face. From Charlie Chaplin's lovable and unlucky Tramp, to Woody Allen's hapless testing dummy in Bananas, through Louis CK's refusal to do anything but fail awkwardly on his show, "Louie", we love watching our heroes fail. Louis CK recently said that there is no point to see his character ever succeed. Where's the fun in that?
This lesson is not lost on Lena Dunham, the writer/director/star of the incredibly personal film Tiny Furniture. Throughout the piece, no one gets it worse then poor Aura, Dunham's filmic double. Her difficulty in adjusting into a post-collegiate life (otherwise known as "the rest of time until you die") is a theme that is oddly untapped considering how many kids are locked in a similar state of anomie. There are scant better opportunities to show someone fail, over and over, in increasingly sad ways, than starting on the road toward adulthood. She doesn't just name check Woody Allen in the film; she shows she's learned the lessons with his evocative film.
Aura returns from the wilds of small town Ohio equipped with her luggage, a very expensive piece of paper she took four years to earn, and a mildly popular video on YouTube to her home, a loft in TriBeCa. As if the film itself couldn't get any more personal, Dunham substitutes sets for life and characters for relatives. The apartment that Aura calls home is the same Lena calls home. Her sister and mother are Dunham's actual sister and mother, but their names have changed (Grace Dunham as Nadine and Laurie Simmons as Siri, respectively). This comfortability no doubt helps buoy some fine performances. Aura comes home not expecting a trip through the Canyon of Heroes or anything, but at least some excitement. She did just graduate from college, after all. Instead, her mother keeps taking photos in her downstairs studio with Grace as a model, insisting Aura come to her to give her a kiss. Welcome home.
Dunham does two things very well throughout the entirety of the film. She stacks the deck against our heroine, never giving her an easy moment (or, truly, any major victories) and weaving Aura's uneasiness through nearly every situation. Some of the most troubling come in the house she used to call a home, or more truthfully, the place her family lives and now she does, too. Aura has to simply change a simple light bulb and her mother tells her exactly where it is, "in the white cabinet." Low and behold the new wall unit, made up exclusively of twenty some-odd identical and uniform white cabinets. Aura is introduced to the new method of learning she will hone for the rest of her life: through painstaking trial and error. The next 80 or so minutes is a fantastic introduction to the curriculum.
Her mother, at first, is of little help. When Aura asks about her mom's experiences at this age, she quickly puts down the entire decade of life that Aura is about to embark on. "I never think about my twenties," she demurs. The only advice Aura receives comes in the form of her mother's diary, taken from her mid-20s, which she pours over through the film's duration. Full of non-sequiturs and itemized lists of foods eaten that day, the journal's true gravity cannot be attained until the student herself has gained enough experience to truly understand how to read it.
Nadine's reception of her sister is a bit all over the place, as a 17-year-old is liable to feel. She's as insecure of her place in the world, but hasn't spent the last four years flushing the worry aside with games of beer pong. But maybe Nadine doesn't have anything to worry about, really. As Aura excitedly aces a simple interview to land a daytime hostess job at Clandestino, Nadine is nonchalantly winning national poetry contests, a past time she does not even enjoy, further pushing Aura's job to be clandestine more than something to brag about. There also has to be a pool of resentment. For the better part of four years, she traversed high school mostly without her older sister. Now, right as she's able to throw parties when mom is out, she has to deal with Aura, this wet blanket, clearly infringing on her space and her freedom, in front of her friends. No wonder she makes Aura change the litter box.
Largely rudderless, Aura steps out on the town and runs into her childhood friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) who gives the impression of maturity like a push up bra gives the impression of cleavage. Charlotte has lived a life, that's for sure. Her helpful love advice, learned as a young teen trying to fool around with an older man, is to grab the other guy's cock, in order to be "spontaneous." (I think that's a Dean Martin lyric.) She has the kind of insecurity that screams out at people. Her giant loft apartment, paid off by an absent father, is filled to the brim with stuff. The abundance of couches aren't there to host parties; notice the shock of loneliness any time Aura leaves or changes her merely changes her focus. The furniture -- like Aura herself -- is there to fill the void, to distract from the space she can't fill any other way.
If Charlotte is subtly manipulating Aura, then the two men in her life are wearing neon signs that proclaim "I'M USING THIS GIRL" with a flashing arrow pointing at their heads. Jed (Alex Karpovsky) acts as both a boy to catch and an ideal to match. I mean, this is THE guy on YouTube who dresses in children's clothes, rides a tiny horse, and recites Nietzsche before firing off toy guns. Aura, awed by his "taking of meetings" that we never see him attend (probably because he does not actually have them) and general attractiveness lets him stay at her place for a week while Siri and Nadine visit colleges. He shacks up in the master bedroom -- where Aura herself is strictly forbidden to stay -- until he complains of the room's "noticeable draft." The management quickly allows him to move into a new bed, eyelashes batting all the while.
Even when Aura strong arms her mom to letting him stay, he'd rather sleep on a slowly deflating mattress than sleep with her (even platonically). He makes her promise that she doesn't sweat the bed; in the morning, he tells her frankly that she might sweat more than any other woman in existence. After he wears out his welcome (obviously it takes a lot), he has the audacity to make Aura feel guilty for not being able to follow through with her promise of more free housing. Showing her youth, she apologizes profusely. We feel for her.
Throughout the film, Aura bounces around trying to fit into what her age means, both in style and in personality. She'll sit on her mom's lap and pleeeeead to get her way, even dipping into "it's the kind of things other mom's wouldn't think was a big deal" to get her way. Then, when confronted by her mother as an adult, she will throw a tantrum, exclaiming:
I just got out of school. This is a very hard time for me. If you didn't notice I had my heart broken, okay? And I'm a young, young person, who is trying very hard. And I don't know if you know what it's like to have a job. Did you ever have a job that wasn't just taking pictures of stupid, tiny crap? ...YEAH! EXACTLY!
She plays a dubious game, vacillating between budding adult and petulant child whenever it suits her. She says she'll pay back the ten (!!!) bottles of wine she took from her mom with the money she'll receive from her hostess job without ever doing the math to figure out exactly how much money she'll make. She has a job -- isn't that enough?
This shift is never more heartbreaking than her relationship with the sous chef, Keith (David Call). He's older, wiser, and set adrift from his shiftless, stupid co-workers. You see, he reads and he thinks and he has a cool-ish fashion sense and a drug problem to match a live-in girlfriend he's on the rocks with (notice when they break up - it's because his current ex found his texts with his ex-ex girlfriend, the mark of a winner). But none of this matters to Aura; she is too busy fawning to suss out things like "warning signs" or might be to naive to even look for them.
We see her try on a number of not only different clothes, but entirely different looks, personas, to try and woo him. After he compliments her earrings once, each subsequent meeting is another opportunity to win some sort of approval. When he mentions his penchant for Vicodins, she finally finds a way in with him (through Charlotte's lax doctors). Similarly he finds a reason to buddy up with her. She ends up standing awkwardly in big yellow heels, essentially playing dress up in the hopes that her Prince Charming will come to Houston and A and whisk her (and, most importantly, the pills) away for a Night to Remember. Instead, he stands her up, letting her linger on the corner, looking like a five-year-old wearing mommy's shoes.
When they do finally connect the romantic dream is quickly pushed away by harsh reality. Dunham fills this altogether awful situation not with broad strokes of terrible, but a mountain of tiny indignities that amount to something even more crushing than one gross act. Notice the subtle "ow" as he steamrolls her against the New York City sidewalk in a sloppy make out session; having sex not just in a construction yard, but in a large, unwieldy pipe inside of said construction yard; having him force her to go down on her; the most bare minimum STD check offered by law; the subtle "pull my hair" Aura says just before the entire act is over; getting pushed behind a car just in case Keith's "boy" sees her with him; his focus on texting while saying goodbye coupled with his mantra "no harm, no foul" that will let him walk away without conflict. Any one of these events would be harrowing in their own right. Stacked together, it's like emotional Jenga, with individual piece knocked with a ball pein hammer.
This act, the culmination of her first lesson in the world at large, drives Aura to rub her mother's aching back while carrying this guilt and pain with her. It becomes clear that Siri doesn't look back at her twenties because it wasn't important, but because it's just too painful. Your twenties are as essential as they are excruciating. Aura fills her mother in on her experience with Keith, getting a very measured response. Siri is no longer talking to an impressionable teen, but something a bit greater. The first question, "didn't you get cold?" shows concern with trust, the second, about using protection, is as plain-stated and above-board as parental critiques come.
And this status is earned. Here is our girl, suffering a roundhouse kick to the face, slowly peeling herself off the canvas, a little wiser and a little stronger. From our seats, we cheer, for her and for ourselves.