I'm still not exactly sure how to describe the films of Andrew Bujalski. I've seen all three of his features, Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005) and the new Beeswax, which is currently playing on 2 screens in New York and Los Angeles and will expand to more theaters in the coming weeks. Funny Ha Ha really struck me when I saw it in 2004, but I think his films have improved since then, and Beeswax is really something wonderful. Of course, the word most people use to describe his films -- and other similar films in the same "wave" -- is "Mumblecore," and I suppose that's effective, but there's more to it.
Bujalski tends to focus on young people in their twenties and thirties. They're educated and middle-class, but probably not the most driven folks in the world. One character in Beeswax, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), prepares to take the BAR, but when he doesn't do so well his first day, he shrugs: "it will still be there for me in six months. And then six months after that." The movie focuses on identical twins, Jeannie, who runs a vintage clothing shop, and Lauren, who is currently unemployed but thinking of taking a job in Nairobi. They're played by real-life twins Tilly Hatcher and Maggie Hatcher (whom Bujalski has known for years); Tilly needs a wheelchair to get around, but the movie refuses to make a big deal out of this. It's just there.
"It's just there" is a good way to describe these films. When characters talk, they mumble and pause and stop to make jokes. They're self-deprecating and they often speak without knowing exactly what they want to say. They fumble for words. The exchanges feel uncannily real, but the thing is that Bujalski writes his scripts, casts actors and directs these scenes. It's a mystery to me how he does it. Even the most trained actors have a hard time acting like themselves when the camera is turned on, and Bujalski's actors are far from trained or experienced. The twins in particular make their movie debut here, and their work comes across as skilled as any Meryl Streep performance; it makes me want to see just what Bujalski could do with Streep.
But the best thing about Beeswax is that I felt like I was really hanging out with the twins and their friend Merrill. And I liked hanging out with them. I felt comfortable with them, and I felt like I could get to know them better. And like real people, we come into their lives in the middle of some drama, and we leave before those dramas are settled. And though nothing is concluded, it just happens to be the right time to leave. (We just get a fairly random slice out of their lives.) "Neo-Realism" is the wrong word to describe this, because that refers to a specific movement of post-WWII Italian films, which includes Open City and Bicycle Thieves, and many of which look positively melodramatic by comparison.
It's rather simpler than that. In Beeswax, one character, Corinne (Katy O'Connor), breaks down and cries, and Jeannie offers her support, but Corinne chooses not to take it and we never find out why she was crying. It's just there.