The latest film by Andrew Bujalski, Beeswax had its U.S. premiere at SXSW on Monday. You might remember Bujalski's earlier features: Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. The term "mumblecore", which describes a certain kind of low-budget indie made by a certain group of people, became popular after an interview Bujalski gave about Mutual Apprecation. But I'd like to talk about Beeswax without mentioning the term and all its associated baggage. Beeswax is a good movie that does some surprising things in a quiet way.
The story in Beeswax takes a backseat to the characters and the way they communicate. Two sisters, Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) and Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), are sharing a house in Austin. Jeannie is co-owner of a vintage clothing store, and the other owner and former friend, Amanda, is threatening to sue her or possibly buy her out. Jeannie seeks legal advice from an old friend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), who's preparing for his bar exam, but a barely mentioned, possibly romantic past colors their interactions. Lauren is trying to help her sister out, but is also trying to get a teaching job, which is complicated by the fact that she's interviewing with Lee (Nathan Zellner), and Lauren just broke up with Lee's brother Scott (David Zellner).
You might be tempted to lump Beeswax into a category with other indie films about twentysomethings and their relationship/friendship problems. But there are some interesting differences. For one thing, the sisters in this movie are played by actual sisters, the Hatchers, who haven't worked as professional actors before. Most of Bujalski's cast is made up of people who don't normally work as actors, but I don't think you'd know that if I didn't tell you. They're not at all awkward.
If you watch a lot of indie films from festivals, especially if you live in Austin, you may find that many of the cast members look familiar -- this movie is chock-full of indie filmmakers. Karpovsky, the Zellner brothers, Bryan Poyser as Merrill's study buddy, Kyle Henry as one of Jeannie's employees, Bob Byington as a potential investor, Dia Sokol, and even SXSW Film Festival director Janet Pierson in a small but significant role. If you were wondering what any of these people look like, you can find out all in one handy film.
But the most interesting thing about Beeswax is something I haven't told you yet: Jeannie is confined to a wheelchair. And what's interesting is that while characters may help her get in and out of her chair, or get it in and out of her car, her being in a wheelchair doesn't seem to affect any of them. I was going to say "her physical limitation" but Jeannie works hard to make that limitation minimal. One scene where she has to find help to get her wheelchair out of her car, and then shut the too-high hatchback, is immensely revealing. And yet the movie isn't some cliched Triumph of the Human Spirit sapfest about someone in a wheelchair -- it's about several characters, and the fact that one uses a wheelchair is often incidental. How often have you seen that in movies?
Beeswax is a movie where the smallest details tell the story, with no need for a lot of background explanations or context. Lee's feelings about Lauren seem obvious, but no one ever mentions them. One character offers help to Jeannie only through other people, and more than once -- we're never told why, and it's more intriguing to guess. Jeannie and Merril's past relationship isn't explained, but we can figure it out from body language and conversations. Bujalski seems to be working to make his film as natural as possible, as if we were peeking in on real people from the window, but accomplishes this while still making Beeswax fascinating to watch.