Editor’s note: Late last week, a small intergenerational fracas erupted in our offices. Film critic David Edelstein and “Agenda” movies editor Miranda Siegel had sharply differing opinions about Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s film about post-collegiate anomie, and the conversation was spirited (and entertaining) enough that we asked the two of them to have it out on Vulture.
David: Miranda—thanks for joining me here. I dragged my feet when it came time to write about Tiny Furniture because, rightly or wrongly—possibly both—I have been struck by the indignation of certain segments of the audience when I pan films reckoned beyond my realm of experience. I don’t get Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the charge goes, because I’m not in my twenties. I cannot possibly understand Precious because I’m not African-American and a woman and a poor Harlemite and a rape victim and an AIDS sufferer. I was irritated by Tiny Furniture because I’m not a female of the mumblecore generation. (Paradoxically, I liked Sideways too much because I was a less-than-svelte fortysomething alcoholic critic who’d have died happy if someone like Virginia Madsen ever took an interest in me.)
I think a work of art must transcend individual experience and touch a larger chord with people young and old, fat and thin, gay and straight. At the same time, I’m interested in knowing what a movie like Tiny Furniture means to people who did grow up in Lena Dunham’s world and share her wavelength.
Miranda: I enjoyed our little inter-cubicle back-and-forth the other day, and I agree that Tiny Furniture should have been able to win over a fiftysomething critic as well as a new graduate. I guess it’s a knock on the film that it didn’t. But it had an extremely powerful effect on me, and if you look beyond the superficial aspects of the material and characters, it’s addressing something I suspect you can relate to.
I will admit that the film can appear a little glib, like so much indulgent, self-effacing mumblecore muck: It’s an ambling, tragicomic ode to well-off twentysomething ennui, centered around the sad-sack existence of a liberal arts grad moping around a Tribeca loft. So: eye-rolling understood. But there’s a much darker and more twisted story underneath, one that effectively captures the feelings of uselessness that define, as her character puts it, “post-graduate delirium.” It’s a sharp portrayal of the ugly feedback loop generated by the constant need for validation, and the self-loathing that inevitably accompanies that need. Aura is not seeking love, or sex, or even a job, really. She’s heard over and over that her parents’ wealth and success give her access to anything—that even if she makes something of herself, it may not be because of anything she has done. It goes deep, to the point where Aura may never know whether she’s actually any good at anything. What she really wants is for someone to tell her that she’s not a total waste of oxygen.
David: I did find the film shapeless. But I also see that its shapelessness is meant to be evocative, to capture the indecisiveness of its heroine and her haphazard quest for the “self-validation” you describe. She feels oppressed by her family’s relative affluence and yet can’t manage to break free of it: She uses their large apartment to put up a possible boyfriend (who exploits her interest in him to hang onto a comfortable bed in Tribeca) and betrays a college friend by choosing to live at home and delay her independence.
Miranda: I wouldn’t necessarily label it shapeless, though I see where you’re coming from. But there’s actually a pretty tight structure there, even if it’s not so overt: Dunham populates her film with characters who only want to take, take, take from Aura, who’s really eager to give, give, give. Aura’s artist mom wants her around because her overachieving sister, Nadine, is off to college soon; Nadine needs Aura around so she has someone to bully; loopy rich-kid Charlotte needs someone to kill time with; mousy college friend Frankie (Merritt Wever) needs a housemate; and so on. Aura’s not even really romantically attracted to the two loser-boys she’s after—Keith (David Call), a sous chef who prefers that Aura thinks he’s “the” chef, and Jed (Alex Karpovsky), an egoistic layabout mooch who shacks up with her. Instead, she’s excited at the prospect of having something to offer them. She even gets all giddy about her crappy hostess job, just like any super-literate liberal arts grad who’s finally realizing that no one cares that she studied film theory.
Which is where the movie got into my head. I also came out of school with a degree in film theory that no one cared about. (At my very first job interview, with a film PR agency, I told the interviewer I was very good at “reading films as texts.” She so did not give a shit.) For weeks, I drifted around my parents’ empty apartment, staring at Craigslist for hours and wondering how long it would take for someone to find me if I dropped dead from boredom.
Tiny Furniture captures the ugliest lows of this inertia, this time period where the days just coalesce into a blur of disenchantment, in a way that few other films have. These are feelings that aren’t necessarily limited to recent graduates. You may be better equipped to handle them, because your life is more settled than mine, but I’d be very surprised if you don’t find yourself in the same funk now and then.
David: The chief problem, though, isn’t her ideas—it’s her lack of presence. The protagonist is herself smaller-than-life. Dunham has an appealing nasal voice, and she knows how to look knowing. But she’s not an actress—not yet, anyway. Aura seems meant to have body issues, and Dunham doesn’t know how to express them, either physically or in words, and there’s something complacent about her non-performance. We’re in a funny area here, because the filmmaker is meant to express what the character can’t and vice versa. But I think she doesn’t have enough distance on her life to pin it down enough on her chosen canvas. The movie has the spread of nonfiction.
Andrew Bujalski’s trendsetting films have taken their share of hits, but I love them (even when they don’t entirely work) because the border between acting and behaving is excitingly in flux. Dunham doesn’t have the same gift for making indecisiveness and lack of definition feel so charged. I didn’t know as I watched that Dunham’s mother is played by her mother (the photographer Laurie Simmons) and her sister by her sister, and that much of the cast and crew are her friends from the worlds of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s School and Oberlin College. But I could tell that her mom wasn’t an actress, and that her scenes with Aura were in some gray area between verité documentary and drama, without the former’s in-the-moment emotional risk or the latter’s tight focus. The mother’s self-centeredness is meant to hit Aura like a blow, but you can’t always tell if it’s the character or the performer who doesn’t know how to interact. That’s a problem I had with the movie, too.
Miranda: We can’t know quite how much the character and filmmaker are the same person, but it seems to me that Aura could be an alternate-universe Dunham, a vision of her life had she not tapped into some path to success. Dunham has relatively little in common with Aura, at least careerwise. She was recently recruited by Judd Apatow, and her name is listed among all sorts of “best filmmakers under 30” lists. You wouldn’t find Apatow banging on Aura’s door, ever.
David: I will admit that the film is full of wonderful, glancing touches. Watching a party scene, you know at once you’re in the presence of people who’d be altogether too comfortable onstage doing one-person-shows: They’re from a generation of confessional monologists. Jemima Kirke’s wealthy, British-born Charlotte is a captivating creation, affected and aggressively self-centered but witty, too, and exhilaratingly free of shame. I laughed out loud when she proposed her idea of a fun evening: “We can take Ambien and watch Picnic at Hanging Rock.” The central metaphor of the title isn’t completely worked out, but it’s certainly suggestive, as are the boxy visuals and the off-symmetry, putting us in a dollhouse world that’s like Wes Anderson Lite (and not so twee). Dunham’s film may not have moved me—but I’ll be excited to see her next one.