Volume 79, Number 9 | August 5 - 11, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
100 minutes; in English; not rated
At Film Forum; opens August 7
209 West Houston Street
212-727-8110; www.filmforum.com

Photo by Matthias Grunsky, courtesy of The Cinema Guild

Twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren navigate conflict in “Beeswax”

Director’s third time yields charming ‘Beeswax’

‘Mumblecore’ film brims with emotion, eschews ‘grand revelations’

By Leonard Quart

Andrew Bujalski is the elder statesman — and arguably the most gifted — among a group of writer-directors (including Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, and the Duplass Brothers) who are part of the loosely defined mumblecore movement. Bujalski has said he regards that movement as an imposed rubric that the filmmakers shy way from.x

Still, the films collectively share an intimate, low-key, performance-based aesthetic as well as minimalist, open-ended narratives. They focus on the everyday problems — usually about the relationships of young, middle-class college grads whose days are spent in conversation. The majority of the characters are smart, slightly adrift, somewhat faltering in speech (a great many unfinished sentences and uncomfortable silences) and generally unsure of themselves. Mumblecore films are made on tiny budgets with non-professional casts, without special effects or stylistic virtuosity, and are completed with an ethic of self-help and collaboration.

Bujalski notes that he really wouldn’t know how to direct professionals. He feels his set is an intimate one, and his directorial method is built on “exploration and personal rapport, not craft.” For Bujalski, “the casting is the movie.”

The presence of non-professionals and the intimate set, however, does not mean the films are exercises in improvisation. Bujalski writes full screenplays where, despite some liberty for the actors to improvise, “the films follow the structure of the written scenes.”             

Bujalski — a 32 year old Harvard graduate — has made three films: “Funny Ha Ha” (2002; the first mumblecore film by general consensus) “Mutual Appreciation” (2005), and his latest: “Beeswax.”

“Funny Ha Ha,” Bujalski says, was made without any concern about marketing it to an audience. He thought he could make a film, if it was cheap enough, which would be a film “he would like to see.” Of course, he wound up paying a price — by having to be his own distributor.          

Of the three films, “Funny Ha Ha” is the most decidedly minimalist. It centers on a group of recent college graduates who spend their days doing little but drinking beer and wasting time. The film’s protagonist, the luminous Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), takes alienating temp jobs and generally seems lost. All her relationships with men are ungainly, including an old friend who makes an awkward pass and one workmate, Mitchell (played seamlessly by Bujalski) — a passive-aggressive whose yearning for the disinterested Marnie and turns hostile, despite his trying to maintain a courteous surface. Little happens in the film except for Marnie’s painful encounter in a supermarket with her heart’s desire, Alec (Christian Rudder) — who has his new wife in tow. Despite his marriage, Alec continually makes moves towards Marnie, and then retreats. In the film’s final scene, Alec and Marnie are together; equivocally bonding and separating without any clear conclusion (another characteristic of mumblecore films).

“Mutual Appreciation” (2005) takes place in Williamsburg and focuses on the experience of Alan (Justin Rice), an indie rock musician who tends to undermine his chances for making the right musical contacts. All the while, he’s trying to suppress his growing attraction to a very sharp Ellie (Rachel Clift) — the girlfriend of Alan’s shambling best friend Lawrence (Bujalski).

Bujalski’s talent for using his camera’s penetrating eye to evoke his characters’ unstated emotions distinguishes this subtle film. All three of his characters are self-absorbed, attractive people who project the kind of complex ambivalence that mainstream films (usually dependent on predictable behavior) rarely aspire to.       

Bujalski’s third film, “Beeswax,” takes place in Austin, Texas (where Bujalski now lives). It’s directed in the same diffident style as his first two films. The difference is, these characters are a bit older and have work lives that are more structured—and the story itself has a touch of a narrative hook (what Bajulski somewhat facetiously calls a “legal thriller”). The film’s nominal plot is driven by a legal suit that is never defined and never comes to a dramatic conclusion. The central characters are two extremely close twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (played by real-life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher)

For Bujalski, “There wouldn’t be a film without the Hatchers.” Jeannie, a paraplegic who handles her disability without an iota of self-pity or self-consciousness, owns a vintage clothing store (the object of the legal suit). Lauren is between jobs, but is contemplating an offer of work in Africa. The film has a number of secondary characters that are given some psychological depth, like Merrill Jeannie’s old boy friend — a law student who provides her with legal advice and emotional support.

Bujalski sees “Beeswax” as a film “where everything is connected and disconnected.” It’s a film where nothing is spelled out, and if there are no grand revelations, imperceptible emotional changes do occur in the lives of the twins. The feeling of real people struggling with significant life choices is successfully conveyed in a quietly indelible fashion.        

Bujalski may have made his last mumblecore film. He has an agent, and has already written a few Hollywood screenplays. Bujalski admits he would like to have a “career,” and try his hand at conventional films. He is anxious to have “the learning experience,” but, at the same time, “do something that is meaningful” if he gets mainstream work.      

The films he has made give him joy. He sees them as dealing with “dangling questions” and not with “direct, but with tangled and confused communication.” The films are basically about negotiation, so the characters “feel each other out in an extremely tentative language.” They don’t deal with the larger political and social world. Always at the center are the personal relationships; and in their breakdown and the attempt to fix them, he sees the root of politics.      

Bujalski knows his films may be difficult to consume and digest, because they eschew conventional narratives; but he doesn’t see his films as elitist (even if he knows he appeals mainly to an audience of cineastes). However, though his films may lack breathless pace and stunning compositions, in their quiet way they are profoundly resonant and suggestive.

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