Mumblecore: What is it good for?

The last time I came out of a movie written and directed by the 32-year-old Andrew Bujalski — it was Mutual Appreciation (2006), his lovely, if at times slightly precious, black-and-white followup to Funny Ha Ha (2005) — I thought to myself:

“Okay, fine, I respected, and enjoyed, that movie. Like Funny Ha Ha, it wins my props and my affection. Andrew Bujalski has a unique way of taking in the world — it may be a dithering, post-verbal, slacker-John Cassavetes-meets-The Mother and the Whore way of seeing it, but still it’s a vision. That said, I don’t really want his next movie to be like this. Two neorealist comedies in a row about post-bohemian twentysomethings in the Northeast fumbling their way toward love is enough. It’s time for Bujalski, the maestro of mumblecore, to try something different.”

Well, Bujalski has now made his third feature, Beeswax (it opens in limited release on Friday, and will expand around the country over the next few months), and it’s different, all right — sort of. This one’s set not in the urban Northeast but in Austin, Tex., and though it contains a soft-pedaled flirtation or two, it’s not really a romance. It’s the story of a small business — a shabby-chic clothing-and-junk boutique — and how it quietly tears apart the two women who co-own and operate it. Jeannie, the lead character, is a rather dour young woman in a wheelchair, and the actress Tilly Hatcher makes her a fascinating, spiky presence. I liked Maggie Hatcher, too, as Jeannie’s “free-spirited” yet demanding twin (she reminds me of certain Deadheads I knew in the ’80s — the kind who would dose you with acid), and also Alex Karpovsky as an amusingly level-headed lawyer-in-the-making. All of these characters seem like real people (an accomplishment). But they also come off as emotional inchworms nudging the movie along.

Is Beeswax a mumblecore film? At this point, a better question to ask might be: When a movie by Andrew Bujalski opens, does it make a sound?

Mumblecore. The very word has a sleepy, cute-but-ineffectual, why would I want to see that? ring to it. And to be fair, this wee indie movement’s most celebrated and accomplished practitioners — Bujalski, Joe Swanberg (Alexander the Last), and the modly perverse humanist Ronald Bronstein (Frownland) — are probably sick of being branded with the M-word. It’s not really a term they ever coveted; it’s just one that got thrown at them — and stuck.

And yet…there’s an almost poetic continuity between the wallflower chic of the mumblecore label; the shaggy, lo-fi, earnest-but-slightly-flat emotional texture of a movie like Beeswax; and the fact that these films all struggle so hard to be seen. They’re the equivalent of that “great indie band” your friend keeps pushing on you that no one’s ever heard of — and when you finally get to hear them, you think they’re not bad, but you know why they’re obscure. There’s something about their sound that doesn’t…dream big.

What’s missing, I think, from the mumblecore movies — what has reined in their profile, and also their appeal — is that, with rare exceptions, no one in them ever gets angry. They’re loping, self-consciously neutral stories of a passive-aggressive generation. At times, it’s almost as if the movies themselves were on anti-depressants. That’s their quirky cachet, and their limitation. I’ve responded, in a small way, to most of the ones I’ve seen, and Bujalski, like the young Cassavetes (who wasn’t exactly churning out blockbusters), remains a filmmaker of uncommon purity. I wish him well. But it may be time that he started raising his voice.

Comments (2 total) Add your comment
  • Daniel Fidler

    I haven’t seen too many mumblecores. I did see “Baghead”, and I enjoyed it. But I’m still debating whether or not to add “Humpday” to my Netflix queue.

  • Aaron

    Frownland doesnt belong in this list at all. Hardly “neutral” storytelling. The thing plays like a prolonged panic attack.

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