There's a fierce, self-lacerating wit on display in Lena Dunham's tiny indie Tiny Furniture: as big and bold as the production is modest and (literally) homemade.
Written and directed by Dunham, who was 23 when she shot it - and when she cast herself in the lead, as a college grad returning aimlessly to the family nest - Tiny Furniture presents a darkly comic, piercing, and occasionally painful study of a young woman's quest for identity.
Sex, employment, a strident sibling, a mother who pushes and pulls in equal measure - and whose stature in the New York art world can make her daughter feel even punier . . . these are the things Dunham's Aura has to contend with.
Dunham's talents have not gone unnoticed by the wider world (she has a Judd Apatow-shepherded HBO series in the works, and a Scott Rudin-produced movie deal).
But in Tiny Furniture, Dunham has her real-life sister (Grace Dunham) play her sister, her real-life mother (artist Laurie Simmons) portray her mother, and her real-life best friend (the sublimely droll Jemima Kirke) drop in as her best friend. On top of that, the downtown New York apartment Aura returns to is the downtown New York apartment Dunham grew up in. Autobiography is all over this baby.
But like Seinfeld or Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, both of which leave traces that a forensic team could readily detect, "real life" only goes so far. Aura's like a sad-sack Hacky Sack, getting kicked from sorry romantic entanglements to parties with old high school pals to the humiliations of a low-wage restaurant job. Dunham serves up this alter ego with irony and with empathy. And she can distance herself, too - the observations, at times, have an anthropological fascination about them.
Aura is self-centered, cynical, easily wounded, and hard to read: We like her, we don't like her, we marvel at her self-destructive gambits (the sex she has with the bartender where she works is awful, every way you look at it). And yet her resilience and intelligence shine through.
Tiny Furniture is very New York (think Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, think pre-Continental Woody Allen). It bears resemblance to Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl (with Zoe Kazan as a college student returning to New York for the summer), and although in scale and scope, design and intent, it is just about the opposite of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, the two films share more than their Manhattan backdrops: Each traces a twentysomething woman's struggles with emotional and sexual issues and the looming presence of a strong-willed mom.
Aura emerges in considerably better shape than Natalie Portman's Nina, and Dunham doesn't have to dance in toe shoes, but the psychological turbulence hits heavy in both characters' lives.
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