22-year-old Aura returns home to her mother’s NYC loft with a useless film theory degree, a boyfriend who’s left her to find himself, a dying hamster, and her tail between her legs. Luckily, her childhood best friend never left home, the restaurant down the block is hiring, and ill-advised romantic possibilities abound. Written, directed and starring Girls creator and ‘voice of a generation’ Lena Dunham, across from her real life mother Laurie Simmons, sister Grace Dunham and Girls co-stars Alex Karpovsky and Jemima Kirke.

Indie comedy reaps a lot from little.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Plainly precocious but willing to be the target of her own jokes about privilege and indecision, Lena Dunham proves herself a creative figure worth watching with her feature Tiny Furniture. The 25-year-old writer and director, who like nearly everyone in the cast plays a version of herself, is the latest in a long line of New York natives who derive humour from their personal complications, but as wayward as it is in terms of narrative this very low-budget digital feature feels emotionally attuned.

Reality bites: Dunham plays Aura a graduate of a Midwestern liberal arts college who returns home to her family’s Tribeca loft, where she attempts to make sense of her adult station on life while living with her mother, Siri, a famous artist, and a high school-age sister named Nadine who has just won a national poetry prize. Dunham herself is a graduate of a Midwestern liberal arts college, and she shot the film in her family’s Tribeca loft, with her mother, the famous artist Laurie Simmons, playing her mother, and her younger sister, national poetry prize winner high school student Grace Dunham, plays Nadine. Dunham’s father, painter Carroll Dunham, does not feature in the movie, presumably because he knew better.

The autobiographical mash-up of real life and fiction is notable for several reasons, not just that relatives in the cast and the family home as principal location do wonders for the cost. Dunham’s focus is the lack of identity that marks the transition from cloistered student to career-seeking adult, and Aura is smart but unfocused. That her mother is so clearly focused, to the point of appearing to neglect her just returned daughter, who has broken up with her university boyfriend, only adds to Aura’s underlying anxiety.

Aura lives in a world where a public presence is expected. Her downtown buddy, Charlotte (Dunham’s downtown buddy Jemima Kirke), casually puts a YouTube short Aura made at university (yes, it’s one Dunham made at university) into an art show, so even as Aura wanders around the family home sans pants and prepares herself for a day job taking bookings in a neighbourhood restaurant she’s struggling with the demands of her community. Her personal assignations, with an online Chicago humourist, Jed (Alex Karpovsky), looking for a place to sleep and Keith (David Call), a sous chef at her place of work whose charm can’t surmount his sleazy self-obsession, provide no more satisfaction, and her travails only make sense once she starts reading her mother’s diary from the 1970s and senses a reflection of herself.

Dunham writes droll, comical taut dialogue – 'you sound like an epilogue from Felicity," Grace dispassionately tells Aura by way of a putdown – that lets the casual, assumed authority of Aura’s friends and peers, whether it’s the raffish Charlotte or the rudely blunt Jed, play as humour without being mere downtown hipster satire. It also disguises the emotional travails that wind through the story, with Aura’s early, misguided anger playing as funny before her later mistakes register with pathos. Likewise, Dunham is explicit in photographing her zaftig body without camouflage, throwing back the starlet fantasies that are as prevalent in independent filmmaking as studio work.

The film, with its distinct rhythms, sometimes overtly studied compositions, and predilection for minor conversations that reveal the everyday and nothing more, is nonetheless a paean to the maternal bond. Simmons’ dry performance – Aura puzzles her, which gives way to annoyance – may be a reflection of her non-professional status, but it works with the family home, where Aura’s state of undress and wish to return to her mother’s bed speak to her fear of letting go. Siri may be a severe figure initially, but her daughter wants to retreat right back to their initial time together, protected in the womb.

Some of the funniest scenes are the most painful, most notably a deadpan discussion between mother and daughter about the latter’s liaison with Keith. However tied to real life they may be, Dunham draws her laughter from the characters, not punchlines; the sometimes painfully alternative mumblecore movement has no sway on her. Dunham’s currently working on a HBO series (executive produced by Tiny Furniture fan Judd Apatow), and television may suit her, since she’s proven herself as a writer but hasn’t had the means to make her case as a director. That said, this is a telling first step.


1 hour 38 min