"Tiny Furniture," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is the story of a young woman named Aura, played by Dunham, who returns home newly graduated from college and with little direction in her life. A comedy of manners and emotional nuance, the film follows Aura's baby steps of maturity from bratty petulance toward something like self-possession. It was shot partly in the New York City loft of Dunham's family — where she still lives — and the roles of Aura's mother and younger sister are played by Dunham's mother, artist Laurie Simmons, and her younger sister, Grace Dunham.
When "Tiny Furniture" premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in March, it won the narrative competition and Dunham was profiled by the New York Times. Courted by Hollywood proper, she would travel to Los Angeles numerous times over the summer, signing with an agent and eventually hiring a publicist.
She landed a pilot, executive produced by Judd Apatow, with HBO and was hired by producer Scott Rudin to adapt a young adult novel. A recent lengthy profile in the New Yorker featured quotes from, among others, her high school English teacher. She also attended the Sundance Screenwriters Lab to work on a project with friend Ry Russo-Young.
Where her on-screen comic persona frequently behaves like an entitled, do-nothing drip, in person the 24-year-old Dunham is a charmer with an obvious ability to get things done.
"That movie is so personal," Dunham said recently about "Tiny Furniture," calling for an interview from the New York production office of her TV pilot. "It's like I wrote it, I directed it, I star in it, if you don't like the movie you don't like me.
"And I also understand there is something essentially unappealing about 'girl makes movies about being a loser and then gets un-loserly things to happen to her.' It's a little absurd."
Dunham isn't the only one getting a bounce off the film. Producers Alicia Van Couvering and Kyle Martin were both invited to the Sundance Producers Lab and Van Couvering is now a consulting producer on the first film in more than 10 years by Whit Stillman, an earlier generation's chronicler of the mores and morals of Manhattan living.
"Tiny Furniture" is actually Dunham's second film as a director, following the embryonic "Creative Nonfiction." It was when her debut played at South by Southwest in 2009 that Dunham met many of the key behind-the-scenes collaborators for "Tiny Furniture."
Shot by the acclaimed young cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes using the video function of a Canon digital still camera, "Tiny Furniture" has a crisp, considered look that is a far cry from the haphazard visual style of many contemporary micro-budget productions. Made in just 18 shooting days, "Tiny Furniture" was finished for $45,000 with a cast dotted with current indie stalwarts such as Alex Karpovsky and Amy Seimetz.
All of the pre-release success and media attention for Dunham and the film obviously shift how people approach it. Now there is the attendant concern of being over-hyped, going from the little movie that could to the indie behemoth that might already have grown tiresome.
"The context of the movie has changed," said Van Couvering. "In the small world I live in, this indie thing, the context of a movie coming from nowhere and winning South-by is very different than a movie that has been in all these magazines and is coming out in a bunch of cities. Perspective and expectations change. So I hope that doesn't affect audiences' reading of the movie."
Even as the film has met with mostly positive reviews and press — especially from the hub of New York media — one aspect of the film never fails to raise notice. Dunham spends an inordinate amount of screen time lolling around the loft in little more than a T-shirt, exposing much of her ample figure.
Critic Amy Taubin in Artforum said that Dunham is "daring us to pass judgment" with her pantslessness and, in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis declared it "the movie's boldest stroke."
"I think I had a partial understanding," said Dunham as to whether she knew just how radical it was for her to present herself in such an unadorned way. "A full understanding would have terrified me out of doing it or made it feel too labored or metaphorical. Having a full understanding of the statement of no-pants would have prevented me from doing it in a way that felt loose and natural."
Coming from the tradition of Woody Allen — whose book "Without Feathers" is prominently displayed numerous times in the film — as well as writer-director-performer Elaine May, Dunham aims to makes her neuroses charming. Her therapy-derived drive to self-examination also unconsciously led her to address many criticisms that can be leveled at the film — the self-absorption, the compulsive over-sharing, even the no-pants thing — within the film itself.
"One of the earliest things my mother said to me was 'Problems are relative,'" Dunham noted. "I recognize there is probably more of a need for a movie about female genital mutilation, but we also live in a really confusing culture for women and if I can make a movie where people are seeing somebody that looks like them having a problem that might be like one they had before, then I hope there is a reason for the movie to exist."
With snap timing, she adds an existential zinger.
"That being said, I have to feel my problems are valid because I'm me and if I didn't, life would be more futile than it already is."