by Jennifer Gandin Le
I almost skipped Lena Durham’s “Tiny Furniture” at last week’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin, TX. The poster painted too twee an image for me: a young woman lying on the floor next to miniature furniture, overlaid by big block letters reading, “Aura wants you to know that she’s having a very, very hard time.”
Luckily, my friend (whose opinion and taste I trust) insisted that I go, so I caught the movie on Saturday morning. Durham’s second feature film, “Tiny Furniture” left me with my mouth agape at what she achieved with a small story and micro-budget.*
The plot follows familiar lines: a college graduate moves home and wanders through small adventures, not sure what to do with her life. What makes “Tiny Furniture” remarkable is not the plot’s arc of events, but the small details of the character’s movement through this familiar story.
The title proves relevant as the film’s small moves and gestures add up to a big emotional impact. (spoilers below)
Aura, a 22-year-old with a college degree, broken heart, and no clue what to do next, moves back home to her mother’s stark New York City loft, where Siri, her mother and successful photographer, arranges her retrospective, featuring still life photos of miniature furniture. Also living at home is Nadine, Aura’s precocious and seemingly perfect 17-year-old sister who wins national poetry prizes, poses for their mom’s photos as a foot model, and takes SAT prep classes. Aura finds a job as a restaurant hostess, reconnects with old friends, and meets new romantic interests who alternately comfort and embarrass her.
“Tiny Furniture” speaks not only to college graduates, but to anyone who has ever left their family of origin and returned, changed. Personally, my teens and college years were spent in a family structure similar to Aura’s: working mother, younger sister, and me. The bitter arguments amongst the three of them are painfully familiar – I lived them, viscerally, when I came home after my first year of college. Going from the freedom and hard work of school back to my family’s home sounded like something brilliant and bright thumping to the linoleum, suddenly wet and heavy. I felt too big to fit anymore into my family’s old roles.
Bio and much more review after the jump!
Some of this familiar effect surely comes from the fact that Siri and Nadine were played by Durham’s real-life mother and sister (Laurie Simmons and Grace Dunham), but much of it comes from Lena’s courage to see clearly and say what she sees.
That’s not to oversimplify or minimize these actors’ achievements, because it’s not just the real-life parallel that gives these fictional relationships their impact. One passing moment speaks volumes about Aura’s relationship to her mom: Aura calls out “mom” several times, but Siri only responds when Aura calls her by her first name.
Jemima Kirke gives a fantastic performance as Charlotte, Aura’s childhood best friend and also the daughter of successful female artist. Through their conversations, the movie asks open-ended questions about the tricky relationship between motherhood and an artist’s career success: namely, can both thrive, or must one always suffer?
Lena Dunham puts her body, heart, and soul on the screen in ways that many filmmakers attempt but don’t achieve. She uses her own physical form to quietly blast beauty norms and stereotypes. She films herself kneeling in the shower, she walks across the screen in only a t-shirt and underwear, and her performance art video features her wearing only a bikini in a public fountain.
Her body’s shape is only explicitly mentioned once, when Charlotte reads a YouTube comment on Aura’s video, which includes words like “whale” and “blubber.” Even this moment doesn’t feel like an overtly political move. Aura lives in her own body as it is, and she neither apologizes for nor over-emphasizes it.
“Tiny Furniture” is one of the first feature-length movies to be shot on the Canon EOS 7D, a digital SLR camera that also shoots 1080p high-definition video. The 7D offers a more accessible price for independent filmmakers than the widely used Sony EX1 ($1,600 versus $6,000+). I’m excited to see a female director among the first to take advantage of this new technology.
Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes uses the camera’s best features (like shallow depth of field and interchangeable lenses) to blend the movie’s visual imagery with its themes. At her art opening, Aura’s friend confronts her in the foreground while in the background, Aura’s crush enters the frame in a blurry outline. We know it’s him, but his figure stays subtle until she turns to see him.
Because of its chip technology, digital SLR video lends itself to still shots more than fast-moving, handheld ones. Lipes and Dunham work with this limitation to serve the movie’s tone of inertia and slowed movement. One of my favorite shots places the viewer on the floor, where we see Aura flop onto a low couch on the left. On the right, we see Nadine’s legs enter the room and step onto a treadmill. The shot sets lethargy against motion, frustrated flaws against perceived perfection, and — so subtly that I didn’t notice it until later — flesh against fitness.
One of my guy friends, with whom I saw the movie, insisted that the strongest aspect of the film was that he never thought about the fact that a woman directed it. I see just the opposite. For too long, the false idea of “universality” has been used to excuse the lack of movies, books, songs, art, etc. from female/people of color/disabled/GLBTQQI/and other non-dominant cultural perspectives.
“Tiny Furniture” is a superb film in itself, and it also means something more to me. It represents my desire and demand for more diverse voices in movies. This movie symbolizes my craving for more female filmmakers to portray their varied experiences on the screen. No matter how feminist and progressive he might be, no man could have made this movie. Durham includes details that could only be seen from the real-life interior of this story.
For example, when Aura and her crush have sex in a giant metal tube on a New York City street, the man orgasms quickly and she doesn’t at all. In a mainstream (male-directed) movie, women’s orgasms are usually skipped. Yet under Durham’s direction, this omission seems funny, real, and intentional rather than an oversight.
I loved this movie and felt it touched an active nerve inside me. You might not identify with much or any of it. That’s okay. That’s why we need more Lena Durhams, more Gina Prince-Bythewoods, Fay Ann Lees, Tracy Deers in film – to bring to the screen stories that will tell gutsy, real stories for broader (pun totally intended) audiences.
*Before a distribution company buys a film, the filmmakers don’t usually release the actual budget. Especially when you make a movie for a micro-budget, you want the distribution company to name a price based on the perceived value of the film, not how much you actually spent. The New York Times coyly quoted “Tiny Furniture’s” budget as “under six figures, about as much as a high-end BMW.”
Special thanks to my smart film dudes Chris, Geoff, and Nik for discussing this movie with me and giving me food for thought.
Jennifer Gandin Le is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Austin, TX. Director Francis Ford Coppola commissioned her film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank. Her non-fiction writing has been published in places like Wired Magazine, Time Out New York, and BUST Magazine. Her short film, Small Changes, was selected as the Grand Jury Prize in the 2009 Intelligent Use of Water film competition, and screened at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.
In addition to her writing work, Jennifer is co-founder of Emotion Technology, a minority-owned company that works with social web companies and policy-makers to prevent suicide and promote mental health online.