Lena Dunhams Open House


Filmmaker Lena Dunham treads the turbid shallows of post-college fallout. In her latest, Tiny Furniture, the artist turns the camera on herself and her immediate family. Dunham favors a sort of hybrid of allegory and docudrama, evidenced in her collaborative shorts Delusional Downtown Divas (in which childhood friends Joana Avillez, Isabel Halley and Gabriel Held play childhood friends). In her first full-length feature, Dunham again casts her own ambitions and insecurities as the star of the show. Tiny Furniture depicts a girl adrift and attempting to moor herself; the film is that moor that rescues Dunham from the ennui of a directionless year after college.


Dunham is the daughter of artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, whom she cites as inspirations, but not necessarily influences on her own work. “I felt like my parents were always involved with abstraction, and I wanted to do something very specific,” Dunham says. In Tiny Furniture, protagonist Aura (played by Dunham) returns home to Tribeca to her resentful younger sister Nadine and distant mother Siri, with no plans, an entitlement born of (the film implies) privilege, and a preternatural skill for emotional articulation bolstered by  years of therapy. Much of the film’s charm resides in the believability of its characters, who occupy a territory in between theiractual personalities and  instantly recognizable “types.” Tiny Furniture is site-specific cinema taken to its logical extreme, an inverse Truman Show where everyone plays himself but only the lead is completely in on the game.

Several other cast members are scripted according to their biographies, which Dunham says was a collaborative process: “I think they chose aspects of themselves—the distracted mother, the goody-two-shoes younger sibling… As a way of distancing or distinguishing their characters on set from their role in our family.” The lines inevitably blurred when cast members were roused from bed and hustled onto the “set”—the family living room.

While Aura, Siri and Nadine are based on the actors who play them, the ethics of reenactment shift when outside actors are cast to play real figures from the director’s recent past. Dunham acknowledges this as a problematic but is not unduly concerned, attributing it to the nature of autobiography. “Sometimes I think its true that people just need to get autobiography out of their systems,” she explains. “And I think this film might do it.” It would be hard to imagine either of the film’s male paramours volunteering to reenact their particular parts. But Simmons in particular plays herself with a delivery appealingly macerated in Angelica Huston. “You are not even having sex with that person,” she upbraids Aura of a male houseguest who has overstayed his welcome. The vehemence of person stings, but not so much as the fact that she clearly wants the best for her daughter, including physical intimacy. How can you do wrong in the eyes of your parents? Maybe you should film them.