Saturday, 21 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: Tiny Furniture

If you think about the number of quirky indie films that come out every year, only a handful ever get noticed. Tiny Furniture benefits from an above average level of self-promotion and widely garnered praise - picking up the Audience Award at SXSW in 2010, it's only now being released over here in the UK and to tie in with that nicely orchestrated marketing pitch it's appearance coincides with in many ways its sister project, the TV series Girls which premiered on HBO earlier this week (and is previewed here).

But an indie film riding the wave of adulation can sometimes turn into a horrible monster and the backlash begins. I was worried I was going to find this smug, too forced and self aware of its own witticisms and more than anything that I was going to find its star - and writer/director - Lena Dunham completely irritating and unlikable. So in many ways this film was a wonderfully pleasant surprise - not only was Dunham, who carries the film, sweet and endearing as Aura she was above all completely watchable and I just wanted the film to go on and on - always a good sign.

Aura is 22 and moving back home to New York after spending four years at college in Ohio. Her boyfriend has left her, her best friend is thousands of miles away, and she is in a post grad slump with no ambition or idea of what to do with her life. Reconnecting with old friends and taking on a poorly paid job as a hostess in a restaurant, she meets You Tube celebrity Jed (Alex Karpovsky) and chef Keith (David Call), two guys whom she lusts after but are absolutely awful to her. Unable to find her way and making some bad choices, Aura struggles with her family and her future caught between the geeky life she had back in Ohio and the spontaneous but ultimately unsatisfying life she begins to build in NYC.

What made Tiny Furniture so enjoyable was the anti-self loathing approach to having this quarter life crisis, this emptiness and loss of direction Aura feels after graduation - she has no idea what she wants to do, or where she wants to go, so her immediate response is to go home and live with her artist mother and pre-college baby sister who are driven in ways Aura is unable to relate to. But instead of getting all emo about it, she floats and just lets things happen, only at times do we get a glimpse of how genuinely lost she feels. She responds to reproachment and frustration by acting out like a child, but bounces back immediately with cheerful humour. It's one of two things which we really startled me about the film - firstly how she continues to be so composed and so good humoured. She gets into some big fights with her mother and sister (Laurie Simmons and Grace Dunham - her family in real life too! Her dad didn't want to do it) - her sister yells at her telling her she think she's disgusting and she can't stand her. Aura responds by hitting her with a wooden spoon, diffusing the situation and not letting it affect her. The horrible (but entertaining) guys she lets into her life tread all over her with little respect, yet she doesn't let this get to her either. She's refreshing and fascinating - especially to someone who would internally agonise over every confrontation for days, hold a grudge about it, and want to seek out vengeance, ahem (it's how a mouse rolls).

The second thing which stood out to me, and which I love in film, is how Aura's character can be a mystery to the audience. There's no voice over, or talking to herself illumination so we know exactly how she's feeling at any one minute, it's her actions (or moreover, her acting) which defines this and I love that. It's like an unreliable narrator - you're told one thing, and then your character acts against it and you have to discover for yourself why. Her friendship with Frankie (Merritt Wever), her college best friend and roommate, is tantamount to this: they plan to move in together in New York, and at first Aura is excited about it and misses her friend. But then as time goes on you see her deleting and ignoring Frankie's voicemail messages before she finally phones her up to tell her she can't move in with her because her mother needs her - which we know isn't true - causing a permanent friction in the friendship which is further heightened by an awkward surprise appearance from Frankie in Aura's new "environment" and an ambiguous parting - I was led to believe Aura would come around and reunite with her at the end realising she is a "true friend" but this doesn't happen meaning you're left to wonder if they ever meet again at all. I really loved how they sidestepped the cliche ending with that storyline and the near perfect capture of mood and feeling: of letting go, of being 'cool' and wanting to leave your old life and dowdy friends behind.

It brims with great characters - so lifelike (obviously the natural chemistry between the family is already there - so odd to think they are playing different versions of themselves, that their own family member has written for them!) and so funny as well - it's a dry, biting humour that doesn't lead to a lot of LOLs but plenty of grins and chuckles. The dialogue is fantastic too - one of my favourite scripts of this year. Dunham manages to nail that particular period in life so astutely, and again - a film where very little happens - manages to keep your eyes glued to the screen, as you're completely invested in the characters and you want to follow them everywhere they go. This film isn't so much a lead up to a life changing, light bulb moment for our protagonist - more of a snapshot of her life in a particularly confusing and challenging moment and she conveys this so wisely.

Jemima Kirke, who plays nutty British bohemian Charlotte, is a wickedly brilliant find (and yes, girl crush alert!). She reminded me so much of a young Eva Green, whom I also adore - it was just fabulous to watch. Her rapport with Dunham (also personal friend outside of the film) is lovable, and she gets some of the best lines - I love that she replies to Aura's mother - who thinks she's a bad influence anyway - "do you believe you have the same sense of entitlement as my daughter?" with, "no - mine is much worse." She's a fabulous clothes-hanger as well - I just wanted her to be on the screen the whole time! I'm glad they didn't go down the false friend/will let you down route with her character, and her friendship with Aura which is so delightfully dysfunctional remains intact at the end. 

Dunham is such a huge new talent - because her character is so large in this film (and a little autobiographical) it's easy to forget she also wrote and directed it. It's sort of like the female equivalent to Garden State and Zack Braff, though it does lack the magic to make it truly special. Lots of little quirky moments stand up though - the carbon copy white cabinets in the house, the dead hamster (funniest bit of the film), the defect blow up mattress, of course the tiny little furniture, and - um- you won't be eating an omelette for a while. A really lovely ending too that has an almost prophetic sense of timing.

Certainly not to everyone's taste (it's the definition of girlie mumblecore), but Tiny Furniture feels fresh, clever and strangely comforting. Catch it if you can, and of course, make sure to tune into Girls which also features Kirke, Karpovsky and Dunham on HBO this Spring. They're not exactly playing the same characters, but if you're yearning for more after TF then this will please lots of hearts.

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