The whole time I was watching 'Tiny Furniture' I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching an R rated female version of 'Napoleon Dynamite.' Aura (Lena Dunham, who also wrote and directed the movie) is as awkward as Napoleon, but she's a little less self-assured. Even though Napoleon is a nerd in every sense of the word, he's still got quite a bit of self-respect. Aura, on the other hand, lacks the sort of self-esteem that one would need to function relatively normally in life.
'Tiny Furniture' first burst onto the indie film scene during the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival. It made the festival rounds after that and started to pick up steam as critics began connecting with the very odd girl who lives with her mom and sister after just graduating from college.
Aura has traveled home after graduating. Her mother is a successful photographer. She has a sister in high school and a pet hamster (that looks suspiciously like a mouse, but no one ever brings that up, even though Aura keeps calling it a hamster). Aura left a best friend back in Ohio, but the friend is planning on moving out to New York so the two of them can live together.
Lena Dunham is a brave actress. Not too often do you see women with her body type (which is a very typical body type for women all over the world) getting naked in movies. It's usually the ultra-thin, super-fit girls that are taking off their clothes, but Dunham's vision for 'Tiny Furniture,' as far as I can tell, is one of realism. Most girls look like Aura, that's just the way it is. Most girls don't look like supermodels.
Aura has no scruples. She's a very forward type of person. She's got this way of putting on a determined front, when in reality her self-esteem is shot. She looks to fill the holes in her life with people who either take advantage of her hospitality or her ignorance. A good looking cook at her new job talks to her, so Aura automatically likes him. He uses her, but she's either too infatuated to understand what he's doing, or she just doesn't care.
I guess that's what bothered me most about 'Tiny Furniture.' It's a wholly acceptable mumblecore indie film, but I found the constant lethargy about life depressing. One could label 'Tiny Furniture' and its cast of hipster care-about-nothing characters pretentious. Sometimes they come across that way and after a while it becomes grating.
The movie is built around "realistic," dialogue where people talk over one another with all the "likes," "you knows," and "ummms" included in their conversations. Again the goal here is realism, but even for someone who is constantly looking for something different in movies, this type of cinematic conversation becomes tiresome after a while. If I wanted to watch people talk like this I'd walk outside. Striving for realism is a good thing, but when it hampers the very story you're trying to tell, then you might be better off being more concise about what you want your characters to convey.
I though Lena Dunham's film was exactly the type of movie you expect to see at a film festival. It's experimental, full of quirks, and leaves a weird after taste when you're finished watching it. It has all the hallmarks of a truly independent, art house film. If that's the kind of movies you're into then 'Tiny Furniture' is something you'd probably enjoy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Criterion Collection release. 'Tiny Furniture' comes packaged in the standard, slightly-oversized clear Criterion case. Inside the front cover is a list of the chapter names. There isn't a booklet provided with this one, like there is with most Criterion releases. All you get here is a simple foldout featuring an essay from author Phillip Lopate entitled "Out There." Along with the essay the foldout also provides notes about the transfer, audio mix and production credits. The collectible number on the spine is 597.
In the "About the Transfer" section it states that the movie was shot digitally on a Canon 5D camera. The movie features some heavy up-close detail but it softens the further back the camera pans. Close ups are the most detailed shots of the movie. You can see tiny pores, the intricate lace patterns of a bra and individual strands of hair atop Aura's constantly unkempt hairdo.
Mid-range photography suffers just a little. Lines become soft and detail becomes slightly fuzzy. Edges aren't crisp anymore. I never saw 'Tiny Furniture' in the theater, but to me the white balance here seems a little askew. When light pours in through the windows it seems to wash out faces. This could be the intent of the director, as it does provide a more realistic look at the movie and it's easy to see by the context of the film that realism is an overriding factor here.
The color palette is overrun by whites and beige, but that's what you get when your mom's an artist and her whole house is painted stark white. Still, there are welcome splashes of color, like a bright pink bra or the varied rainbow of colors inhabiting the tiny pieces of furniture Aura's mom uses for her photographs. Not the best looking Criterion release I've ever seen, but it certainly does seem to stick to the director's vision of the movie as a whole. Note: There was no mention of Lena Dunham overseeing the Blu-ray transfer like many other directors do for their Criterion releases. So, there's no way to say if this is exactly the way the filmmaker intended her movie to look on Criterion Blu-ray.
It's a mumblecore film and so, people mumble. It's a good thing that the center channel is well defined because even though this is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, most of the sound from the disc comes from there. The entire film is talking, punctuated by some light, atmospheric soundtrack music, but not much. The dialogue is clearly heard for most of the movie. There are times where Aura will drift off at the end of a sentence, but every time it happens it seems purposeful rather than the audio mix missing it. The rear speakers offer a healthy amount of ambient noise whether it be the echoes in her mother's cavernous apartment, or cars on a busy street. This is a very subtle film that doesn't have much in the way of flashy audio pyrotechnic s. It doesn't need them. What we do have is a competent, well-mixed audio presentation that will please anyone who decides to pick this one up.
Four of Lena Dunham's short films have been included here.
'Pressure' (4 min.) – This was filmed in 2006. It's a short discussion between a trio of girls in a library. They have a chat about what it's like to have an orgasm.
'Open the Door' (5 min.) – Filmed in 2007 this short film that stars Carroll Dunham (Lena's father) as a seemingly unwilling participant.
'Hooker on Campus' (5 min.) – Filmed in 2007 this short is pretty self-explanatory from the title. A hooker trying to earn money on a college campus.
'The Fountain' (6 min.) – Much like the performance art shown in 'Tiny Furniture' with Aura in a bathing suit cleaning herself in a fountain, this short film is about a girl who wants to do the same thing but is challenged by a cop.
'Tiny Furniture' has its moments of humor, but the middle of the movie seems to drag. Meandering through a group of misanthropes who don't inspire us to really care about them. It's easy to feel bad for Aura, because we all know someone as socially awkward as her, but as she regresses to an almost childlike state with her mother around, we wonder if there's something else wrong with her. I don't know. Her character started to grate on me. Here's a girl who has graduated college, but still gives her mother the sobbing daughter, "But, mom!" routine. It's a movie for mumblecore fans and unwavering Criterion collectors. It's worth a look, but I can't really recommend it.