Lena Dunham is the star of the show in “Tiny Furniture,” a charming, cleverly written entry in the young filmmaker’s burgeoning oeuvre. As the film’s writer, director and lead actress, her presence is felt in every frame of this semi-autobiographical film. “Tiny Furniture” follows Aura (Dunham), a recent graduate of an Ohio college who, after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, moves back in with her bourgeoisie family in New York City to try to figure her life out.

“Tiny Furniture”

At the Michigan
IFC

Moreover, Aura’s sister Nadine and her mother, Siri are played by Dunham’s own mother and sister, Grace Dunham and Laurie Simmons, respectively. Basically, this film is very, very personal. And the audience can sense this. The film feels like an intimate, uninvited look into the private lives of its characters.

Aura’s family is one of the best aspects of “Tiny Furniture,” Siri and Nadine being two of the more likeable characters in a movie ostensibly abounding with unlikeable ones. The family’s chemistry is great; their scenes have an easy familiarity that lends an effortless energy to their witty repartee. But the family dynamic runs deeper than this. Beneath their amusing banter the viewer can sense an underlying current of resentment and jealousy, which leads to humor in earlier scenes, then explosions of anger and sadness as the film goes on.

But when the film moves away from this domestic setting, it quickly loses steam. Aura makes two significant male friends throughout the movie, aspiring comedian Jed (Alex Karpovsky, “Lovers of Hate”) and chef Keith (David Call, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”), who works at a restaurant where Aura gets a job as a hostess. The two are abrasive to the point of being hard to watch, and one can’t help but cringe at Aura’s desire to even be around them.

The film presents a cold world. Dirty streets lined with uninviting, white-walled homes and lonely people fill the screen. While this in itself is not necessarily negative, the film offers few warm moments to offset the bleakness. The humor is mostly disparaging and sarcastic, and the characters show little compassion for one another.

And it’s hard to root for Aura as a protagonist. She is portrayed as an outsider, but the viewer can’t relate to her because she is not depicted in a consistent manner. We are meant to believe she’s the victim when Keith takes advantage of her, but also that she’s the perpetrator when she blows off her best college friend Frankie (Meritt Wever, “Into the Wild”). The film can’t seem to decide whether she’s a whiny, entitled bitch or the victim of a family and peer group who don’t understand her.

And, partly due to a flat performance from Dunham, Aura ends up a pretty insipid character, with an emotional palette generally ranging between boredom and apathy. Indeed, many of the secondary characters are more interesting and energetic than Aura. One of these is Charlotte (relative newcomer Jemima Kirke), an old friend of Aura’s — recently out of rehab, with a possibly fake British accent and magnetic spontaneity. Her scenes are fun and lively, her drunken caprices contrasting nicely with Aura’s droll, muted sensibility.

Late in “Tiny Furniture,” Aura’s mother remarks that she and Aura continually have the same conversation. It feel the same way to the audience. The film keeps rehashing the same situations and conversations. It seems to drag on much longer than its 98 minutes, and ends up feeling like a patchwork of scenes that don’t quite coalesce into a coherent narrative. Its witty script and interesting characters ultimately aren’t enough to elevate the film above mildly diverting entertainment.

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