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Tiny Furniture

April 30, 2013

4/5 Not ground-breaking, but funny, charming and not pretentious

Depending on your patience for low-budget films, Tiny Furniture will watch either as a contemporary gem or a pretentious mess. I have read arguments as to the latter and must admit I have not had much patience for them; it seems to me a disease of the decade to ascribe allegations of pretension to any fiction that tries any technique differing from the standard norm.

The story is a straightforward one; a young woman returns to her family home after a stint at university studying film, which she hopes to turn into a career. Faced with her more talented and successful mother (a photographer of constructed miniature furniture) and younger sibling, she begins to withdraw and fall into a post-university rut of hanging around with all the wrong people, drinking and indulging in mild drug use. This does not lead to any especially dramatic storyline, as one might expect of a more conventional film. Personally, I’d consider this a blessing, as I find morality tales – however cleverly disguised – a tedious bore.

Tiny Furniture is subtle. It is about the struggle of having to grow up after living in the bubble world of university (particularly when emerging from a high income background) and the frustrations of the working world for those with unfocused but ambitious career aspirations.

I can understand an audience being put off by this and finding it hard to empathise with our apparently spoiled main character, whose sense of entitlement and selfishness understandably grates on her mother. Middle-class families in domestic distress might not strike some as being very compelling drama, as there is nothing real at stake – if anything, it’s their own mindset that needs challenging and fixing, not their situation.

However, I do not consider there to be any intrinsic value in the condescension of working classes by middle-class film-makers attempting to recreate the grittiness of urban life as they imagine it to be for people from low-income backgrounds. I am relieved that the director chose to focus on her own experiences; after all, in a large metropolis, grit and urban frustrations are not restricted to those in relative poverty – the oppressive atmosphere it creates is widespread, all the more since the recession and difficulty finding jobs that satisfy. It seems likely to me that your personal experience with the recession will reflect how you interact with this film; it is generally viewed that light-hearted comedies do best during this time (anything that ignores the current climate and provides escapism) and Tiny Furniture is certainly not that. It is topical and funny but in a deadpan and slightly bleak way.

The domestic disputes are suitably overblown and ridiculous; at one point, our main character freaks out and starts pushing things off her mother’s desk, when her sister walks in on them and has to fight heard not to laugh. This will be familiar to anybody who is a sibling. Since the cast members are the film-makers true life sister and mother, this is an example of how she allows the natural chemistry between her and them to take the lead and become the essence of the film. This autobiographical lilt may be off-putting to those who like a clear distinction between fiction and reality.

Tiny Furniture takes place over a small space as part of a larger area; one apartment in block contained in a large city. It focuses on a select few characters and their interactions with the main, making it mostly a slice of life tale. This in itself may deter an audience who are interested in clear plot development, but despite this, Tiny Furniture is well-constructed and has a clear beginning, middle and end. It avoid clichés of other indie movies, like shaky-cam, strange camera angels or overuse of fix-cam, breaking of the fourth wall, long-drawn-out panoramic shots, scenes in near silence, inconsequential scenes or experimental transitional phases between scenes. It does not try to be deep. Unlike the similar Mutual Appreciation, neither is it in black and white, nor does it use close up as an attempt to get intimate with the audience; the watcher remains at a cold distance, appropriate for the time and place it is representing.

One relevant aspect explored in Tiny Furniture is the Youtube culture of wannabe celebrity and the gentle lampooning of such so-called “internet personalities”. In addition to her waste-of-space not-quite-boyfriend, who has garnered small scale fame for his silly contribution to the internet, our character herself makes arguably pointless videos of her standing in her bathing suit in various situations, which her down-to-earth yet oddly deluded best friend looks on as if it is some great work of genius. I believe that the film-maker of Tiny Furniture will go much further than her bite-sized character and that she knows how best to use experimentation in cinema – something that is a real need for current (particularly American) movie-goers who are tired of the blockbuster pulp that is churned out each year by the American film industry.

It really is a film for our time; the question is only whether or not its popularity will show now, when it is topical and raw, or later down the line as a historical example of early 21st century film and its independent streak. Films of this type raise a lot of eyebrows from people of its time, who perceive them as being unnecessarily “arty”. I do not believe this is the case; I believe this is an honest and straightforward attempt to portray reality as the film-maker perceives it, in all its absurdity and obscurity. If that is pretentious, then we are all pretentious.

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