Doing existential pratfalls with 'Tiny Furniture'

The national publicity for "Tiny Furniture" focused on this brainy, zany and engaging youth comedy as a veiled autobiography. Like her heroine, Aura, 24-year-old writer-director Lena Dunham graduated from Oberlin. Her mother and Aura's are New York artists who specialize in photographing miniatures. Dunham's sister, like Aura's, is a prize-winning student poet.

To make the art-life symmetry perfect: Dunham plays Aura; her mother, Laurie Simmons, plays Siri, Aura's mother; and her sister, Grace Dunham, plays Nadine, Aura's sister. Lena Dunham even shot the movie in her parents' apartment.

Happily, Dunham has used her life for sly narrative, not psychodrama. A distinctive take on the twilight zone of young womanhood, "Tiny Furniture" has a tone all its own. It's precociously sardonic.

On the phone from New York on Tuesday, Dunham said that from an early age, "I loved setting up characters and situations. But you do a play, and it's over. That's the part I didn't like. I always wanted to make movies. It just didn't occur to me that it was a possible thing to do. It relied on a mysterious magic and special tools that little girls didn't have."

The rise of low-cost digital equipment convinced Dunham that she could carve out a niche in movies for individualistic yarn-spinning. Still, she said, "it was ridiculous hubris to think there was a movie here. Even the most climactic moments wouldn't scratch the surface of a 'real' dramatic moment in a 'real' movie."

True, nothing momentous happens in the 98 minutes of "Tiny Furniture." It's about a time of life when there's no clear path to follow, just crazy curlicues. Aura reconnects with a party-girl named Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) and strains her friendship with her college friend, Frankie (Merritt Wever). She works as a restaurant hostess and flirts with a chef named Keith (David Call). She invites Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a hip Internet comedian — and incorrigible exploiter — to crash at her place while Siri and Nadine are away.

But the movie, which opens Friday at the Charles, is extravagantly humorous, even without any jokes. "Maybe there are just my versions of jokes," Dunham suggested, like Aura placing her dead hamster in a plastic bag and keeping it in a freezer. You see no one laugh on-screen because "nobody sets out to amuse anyone," she said. "Usually when one character laughs at another in a movie, audiences aren't laughing along. That kind of laugh should only be about two people sharing something." Her movie feels free and loose, yet Dunham called herself "a script Nazi. I write and edit the script. I let the actors play with it, but we never try to 'find' the scene in performance."

"Tiny Furniture" grew out of Dunham's "first year out of college. There is something poignant and specific about that moment. You should be acting like an adult, and you don't know whether you're equipped for it."

The movie overflows with casual wisdom about buddies and siblings. Aura favors the uncensored and accepting Charlotte — "a character who has a tremendous amount of love for Aura, but is a disastrous mess" — over smart, together Frankie, "who wouldn't let Aura get away with anything, but also wouldn't let her pick a new identity. She and Frankie were college friends. But what does this friendship mean outside of college, in her life?"

Aura is so lost that she even can take Jed as a role model: "He's found a way to use his skills to survive. Who knows how many couches he has slept on?" She ignites a pitched battle with her sister, then makes up hours later. "The thing about sisters is," Dunham said, "is you could say the most horrible things to each other. But if you say them to a friend, you'd never speak to each other for 50 years. To me that's fascinating — what makes family different from friends."

Dunham is "incredibly excited" about her new HBO series, which starts shooting at the end of April. (Judd Apatow is the executive producer.) "I have the same kind of characters, but they're not native New Yorkers, and they're a little older — two years older — which makes a huge difference, weirdly enough." It's the kind of distinction that a comic artist like Dunham could clarify with hilarity.

"My goal for my comedy," she said, "is that it would always feel funny the same way life is funny — that whatever you'd feel seeing a strange or funny exchange between two people in a room, you'd have the same experience seeing it in my movies." Because of her oddball realism, in all the rooms in Dunham's movies, the laughs are a lot bigger than the furniture.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

"Tiny Furniture" opens Friday at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St. Call 410-727-3456 or go to thecharles.com.

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