Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a rare movie that’s actually about modern life, so why does it feel like it was made by people who just landed on Earth two weeks ago? Writer-director Dunham also stars as Aura, a recent college graduate who returns to the snazzy New York apartment populated by her successful artist/photographer mother (Dunham’s actual mother, Laurie Simmons) and her precociously brilliant high-school-aged sister (Dunham’s sister Grace). Aura’s boyfriend just broke up with her, and her friends and family are dismissive, but she has a cushy job working as a lunch-shift hostess at a restaurant that doesn’t serve lunch, and she has a potential new relationship brewing with a puppyish deadbeat (Alex Karpovsky) who’s a cult star on YouTube. Tiny Furniture offers a 21st-century, East Coast spin on The Graduate, but with comedy-writer-ish dialogue and a mannered style that never fully gels.
Dunham deserves credit for steering clear of the quirk-trap that snares so many low-budget indies. Yes, the movie opens with her character cradling her pet hamster, and yes, it includes a scene in which a mother and daughter discuss the merits of different Jelly Belly flavors. But the preoccupations of these characters—Internet fame, artistic expression, worrying that they look dorky—are largely explained by the community they inhabit, and Dunham humanizes them with small throwaway moments, as when Aura looks at her mom’s laptop and asks, “Did you Google ‘cupcakes?’” The problem is that these moments are largely disconnected, stranded in a movie that has no point of view on aimless pseudo-intellectuals beyond “They can be kinda funny sometimes.” Plus, the performances are muted almost to the point of somnolence, almost as though the actors don’t really understand words like “Oprah” or “Felicity.” The result is a movie that plays like pages ripped at random from a smart screenwriter’s notebook, then reproduced verbatim by a cast and crew that doesn’t know what the pages are supposed to mean, let alone how to assemble them into what we humans call a “story.”