A microbudget indie written and directed by a recent college grad who doesn't know what to do with herself, featuring a recent college grad who doesn't know what to do with herself played by the writer-director, starring the writer-director's mother and sister as the character's mother and sister, and they all live together in a gobsmacking huge Tribeca loft apartment/art studio played by the Tribeca loft apartment/art studio where the writer-director, here mother, and her sister all live, and at this point, if you are like me at all, you have already clawed most of the skin off of your face in agony.

The hell of it is, Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture is surprisingly good. Okay, so I'm grading on a curve a little bit: it's actually fairly standard American indie fare that has the good fortune to remind one much more of the deeply divisive works produced by a clutch of filmmakers across the country, inaptly rounded up under the "Mumblecore" brand name, than the work of somebody genuinely accomplished and artistically brave like e.g. Ramin Bahrani. Still, Tiny Furniture is enough better than most of the microbudget pictures to come out of its particular branch of modern American independent cinema (that would be the "navel-gazing artistic class white people and their milquetoast relationship issues" branch, one of the two hugely over-dominant Grand Narratives of the contemporary indie; the ever-unflagging "post-Tarantino hip & violent genre exercise" is the other), that I find myself feeling kindly to it nonetheless; it might not be, in the grand scheme of things, a masterpiece to be lingered over for ages hence, but it was as glamorous and seductive as God's prettiest angel to me, stacked against something like Joe Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth, one of the most catastrophically unpleasant debut films in recent memory.

Dunham plays Aura, who has just returned to New York after four years at college in Ohio ended up in nothing particular (we never even get an exact sense of what she studied there, but it seems like it might have been - surprise! - film), and who has just been given the shock of her young life when her boyfriend broke up with her to go "find himself" in Colorado. Untethered and unmotivated, Aura floats around the house, irritating her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), and sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), picking fights with both and then sincerely apologising. Along the way, she reconnects with an old friend from the neighborhood, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), starts not-dating Jed (Alex Karpovsky), who has found some fame through a series of YouTube where he delivers surreal rants as "The Nietschian Cowboy", and lusts after Keith (David Call), the sous chef at the restaurant where she's been able to snag a low-paying, undemanding job. (The film never makes it clear, by the way, if we are to note or ignore the misspelling of "Nietzschean").

Like so many films (so, so many...) made by twentysomethings in the Digital Cinematography Age, Tiny Furniture is insular, and by "insular", I mean, "entirely unaware that there is anything remotely approximating a world of humans who live and die and love and feel outside of the filmmakers' head"; nor is it terribly fun to watch a young woman living in a Manhattan apartment big enough to construct airliners in the master bedroom complaining about the recession. And Dunham suffers from an explicable disinterest in engaging with some of the issues that she raises, not least of which is Aura's own character: while it's easy enough to see that the whole menagerie of at times excruciatingly unlikable figures peopling the movie are meant to be unlikable, the director never sees fit to call Aura on her bullshit, which is neither more nor less acidic than the self-serving immaturity which makes Nadine an almost constant object of mockery, and less defensible when we note that Aura is five years older than her sister. Frankly, I found it quite impossible to do more than simply tolerate the protagonist, which I do not suppose was the intent; when Aura expresses a parochial disinterest in any sort of art that isn't heavily ironic or veiled through several layers of media (this is a tremendously phone- and internet-savvy movie), when she snittily claims that people with degrees shouldn't have to work for a living, or when she knowingly sets her mother off just to distract herself from quotidian boredom, it's not hard to imagine Dunham nodding in sage agreement, and not just because she, herself, is voicing the lines; and it's not hard to hate her a little bit for doing so.

But it's not just a privileged kid's movie, and that is what makes all the difference. For all that Dunham sabotages herself with a screenplay that matches every trenchant observation with at least a couple dismally flat lines, and for all her feckless treatment of the actors - not a single performer stays in the register for very long, although some of them spend more time in what I'd generally call a "good" place then a "bad" place - she's not indifferent or unthinking about what she's putting onscreen. Tiny Furniture has a clear enough arc despite an apparently shiftless narrative; the movie might never leave Aura's head, but at least the actress and her script have enough of an idea of what we're going to find there that the movie functions as one of the most convincing depictions of a particular kind of post-collegiate malaise in a market positively glutted with the fucking things - though I still have no idea why she's so fond of Keith and his hideous dead-caterpillar moustache.

Dunham also serves herself well with a tone of frothy anti-comedy: funny being in the eye of the beholder, I can't quite make out what some of the film's biggest fans see in the alleged "jokes" on display, though I join them in liking the same moments. The more those jokes keep coming - lines of dialogue that mostly establish Aura's morbid fear of sincerity (it's worth noting that the film's big emotional blow-up begins with the young woman knowingly and willfully lying her head off), repeated shots of Siri's minimalist, but conspicuously-designed home that are increasingly absurd and increasingly claustrophobic as the film progresses - the more they seem to be driving not at wit, but at desperation: Aura's desire to be known and loved conflicting with her mistrust of being loved resulting in a sourness that is rather too present in the film, not just the character; but legitimate sourness is better than polished, artificial smugness any day of the week.

Still, the film could have used some critical distance: that Aura is baldly autobiographical would be obvious even without the production trivia, and it's not to the film's credit. Even as it paints everyone around Aura as a fatuous cartoon, Tiny Furniture indulges the character and her selfish tics - which are neither more nor less gratuitous than those of at least her mother, who is depicted as a tiresome harpy who has forgotten what it was like to be young and scared - beyond good aesthetic judgment, if plainly not beyond reason.

Presumably, hopefully, good judgment will come: for Dunham has a much surer idea of what movies are can can be than most microbudget filmmakers of her generation. Shockingly - genuinely shockingly, I mean, for if there's one thing you pick up from watching too many microbudgets, it's the paucity of visual thinking on display - Tiny Furniture has some idea of how to stage a scene and frame a character; that sexy-ass Tribeca loft is depicted with an awareness of place rare in any movie, not just a pocket change indie. Dunham and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes do not always make the right choices: there are a few too many closeups, the hallmark of the TV generations, and I do not understand what is achieved in the 2.35:1 widescreen ratio that wouldn't have been just as good in nice, sane, normal 1.85:1. But shots are blocked well, there's virtually no handheld and no obvious camcorder tricks, partially because the film wasn't shot on a "camcorder" so much as a "still camera with video recording capabilities", the defiantly unsexy Canon 7D.

It's generally a film made by somebody who understands that where you put somebody in the frame, relative to other people and objects, affects how we feel about them; and if Tiny Furniture did nothing else of value, that alone would earn it my gratitude. That it's somewhat insightful - somewhat - is even better. Navel-gazing it might be, but there have been less interesting navels gazed at with greater masturbatory attention, and I think it fair to say that Dunham has talent enough within her, even if she's overthinking and overdetermining things here, that whatever she does next ought to be worth a look.