Liminal periods are intermediate states of identity, not quite one thing or another. In her low-budget independent comedy Tiny Furniture, writer, director, and lead actress Lena Dunham paints life in a liminal space with unsettling veracity. For Aura (Dunham), this liminal space is post-graduate, pre-career home-life. Aura is the daughter of a well-to-do, aging photographer (Laurie Simmons), and sister of an obnoxiously successful high school senior, played by the director’s real-life sister, Grace Dunham. After leaving behind (or having been left behind by) a soul-searching boyfriend and a quirky best friend at an unspecified Midwestern college, Aura embarks on a journey of further self-discovery at home. But when she discovers that her sister and mother have been getting along just fine without her, she sees that she is neither as needed nor appreciated as she once thought.
Aura’s disillusionment plays a central role in Tiny Furniture. As she decides to search for stability outside her home, we watch her collide with real life, outside of her college’s film studies department. Dunham includes numerous scenes of Aura taking a bath inside her apartment’s chic yet mausoleum-like bathroom. The décor consists of white walls and mirrors, reflective of Aura’s unwanted solitude and hyper-self-awareness. In these moments we recognize the vulnerability driving Aura’s search for stability.
While she rekindles her relationship with a childhood friend, secures a job as a restaurant’s day-hostess, and attempts to woo a strung-out sous-chef, we realize that Aura’s search is no more than a fruitless stumble in the dark. We are left wondering when, if ever, Aura will depart from girlhood and solidify some sense of self. At twenty-two, she sleeps in her mother’s bed, plays passive-aggressive mind games, and remains romantically with her head in the clouds. But for all her white lies and insecurities, Aura’s emotional resilience and wily humor subtly shine through her childlike antics.
Dunham’s work is obsessively frank in both the best and worst way. While it is refreshing to observe characters free of some of mainstream cinema’s superficiality, Dunham’s characters are cringe-worthy in their authenticity. Roger Ebert, as usual, perfectly articulates this unorthodox style of filmmaking, writing, “Dunham, indeed, plays one of the most real people I’ve seen outside of a documentary. She and the others are unaffected, behave as people we know actually do, live in familiar rhythms.” Aura and friends are in fact so unaffected and lifelike that viewing Tiny Furniture feels near voyeuristic in its verisimilitude. A critique of any one of Dunham’s cast members could easily turn into a critique of ourselves. Dunham is hyper-aware of the qualities that make us human, and skillfully exhibits them in the bodies of upper-class twenty-somethings. After all, this is the demographic that Dunham seems to know best. Tiny Furniture was shot in her mother’s own home, with her actual close-college friend Jemima Kirke playing childhood friend, Charlotte, and her mother and sister costarring as themselves. And Dunham, too, attended a liberal arts college in the Midwest where she, like Aura, studied film. Dunham’s work in the series Girls has been criticized for crudeness, but it is the same vulgarity that gives Tiny Furniture its absurd charm and truth.