Tiny Furniture (IFC Films), the second film made by its 24-year-old director, writer, and star Lena Dunham, couldn't be more aptly titled. Dunham plays with the accoutrements of her own life like a child with the contents of a dollhouse. The dolls are members of her own family: Dunham's mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, plays the artist mother of Dunham's character, Aura; her real-life younger sister, Grace Dunham, plays Aura's sister Nadine. Their dollhouse is a pristine, snow-white TriBeCa loft where Dunham's parents actually do live. And the "tiny furniture" Dunham-the-director moves around consists of elements from her life, cunningly rearranged to tell a story about someone who may or may not be the director herself.
Aura has just graduated from college in Ohio to move back temporarily into the apartment of her mother, Siri, a successful artist whose work consists mainly of photographed miniatures. Aura (unlike Dunham, who managed to make and release her first feature film while still in college) is a drifting, directionless sort, given to masochistic affairs with callous and self-involved men. She has desultory encounters with two such men over the course of the movie, a thin-skinned sous-chef at the restaurant where she works (David Call) and a freeloading performance artist, Jed (Alex Karpovsky). Jed's work consists of posting YouTube videos of himself riding a rocking horse and spewing philosophical non sequiturs as "the Nietschian cowboy." (The misspelled name is either a joke on the character or by him; it's never clear.)
Aura also has a childhood friend, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a blond British party girl who, to those of you familiar with the series My So-Called Life, is sort of the glamorous Rayanne to Dunham's plumper and plainer Angela Chase. The girls trade outfits and prescription pills, paint fake tattoos on each other, and bond over their "asshole" mothers, but it's not clear that Charlotte is really Aura's friend. When Siri sternly tells her daughter that "Charlotte is such an incredibly bad influence," the viewer can't help but agree (though Kirke is wicked fun company, the most accomplished performer in this mainly nonprofessional cast). But Charlotte is also Aura's ticket into the depressing-but-prestigious world of downtown art openings and awful hipster parties where people earnestly ask, "How have you been?" then glaze over and walk away midsentence.
In its sendup of New York bourgie-boho culture and its precise portrait of a close but conflicted mother-daughter relationship, Tiny Furniture recalls Nicole Holofcener's Please Give. Granted, it's not as good a movie as that wise, luminous comedy, but Holofcener has been making films for nearly 20 years. For a DIY second feature from a very young director, Tiny Furniture feels surprisingly assured, even elegant. There are those who will accuse Tiny Furniture of wildly inconsistent tonal shifts, and it is guilty of some, but I appreciated the way this movie kept upending my expectations. One minute it's a kind of Cinderella story, with Aura's mother and sister ganging up on her and events seeming to conspire to make her miserable; the next minute, our sympathies shift from the protagonist to her mother as Aura makes yet another dumb, self-destructive mistake.
Though it's paced like a comedy (sometimes too much so, when Dunham ends a scene on a punch line, ba-dum-bum), Tiny Furniture has a way of suddenly delivering moments of unexpected emotional power. One whole scene consists of a long static shot of Aura sobbing and berating her mother—"Did you ever have a job that wasn't taking pictures of stupid tiny crap?"—while her teenage sister snickers. The character of the mother, though, remains unsatisfyingly opaque. She does seem a chilly sort, but nothing she says or does to her daughter is objectively that unreasonable. Siri's apparent shortcomings as a mother may spring from Laurie Simmons' shortcomings as an actor; her line readings sound stiff and unintuitive. (Or is her own director/daughter telling her to speak that way? The meta-self-referential plot thickens.)
Starting in 2011, I resolve no longer to use the term "mumblecore." If it ever meant anything specific, the category's been stretched too thin to mean that thing anymore. Not only that, the term tends to have a derogatory usage that doesn't describe how I feel about many of the movies awkwardly bunched under that label. But I'll use it one last time in this review in order to disown it, and to note that, though their style may not yet have a name, moviemakers including Noah Baumbach, Lynn Shelton, the Duplass brothers, and Andrew Bujalski have been making worthwhile, sometimes wonderful low-budget films in which young, affluent, well-meaning white people treat one another with shocking cruelty, bantering passive-aggressively all the while.
Tiny Furniture belongs somewhere in that general still-unnamed category, but its bright primary colors and flat, formal compositions, pleasingly shot by Jody Lee Lipes, also owe something to Wes Anderson. Dunham takes Bujalski's trick of ending on an unexpected beat—a moment that somehow doesn't feel "important" enough to be a movie ending—and pushes it to the extreme, with the film seeming to cut off abruptly after a random line of dialogue. I rewatched the ending of Tiny Furniture a couple of times, trying to decide a) whether I knew what the ending was trying to do and b) whether I liked it. I'm still not sure I know the answer to either of those questions, but it's noteworthy when a movie comes along that even makes them worth asking.
P.S. Place your mouse here for my spoil-ish thoughts on the ending.