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Subtext is Andrew Bujalski's 'Beeswax'

Label his films as 'mumblecore' if you must. Just remember that his work and characters are sharp.

February 14, 2009|Dennis Lim

BERLIN -- Two films into his career, writer-director Andrew Bujalski found himself cast as the elder statesman of "mumblecore," a genre that, as far he's concerned, never existed.

The term -- coined in jest by a collection of filmmakers, many of whom know and work with one another -- applies to a loose grouping of low-key, low-budget indies, talky, naturalistic and more or less concerned with the drift and disaffection of post-collegiate life.

Although some critics have stereotyped these movies as haphazard and uneventful, Bujalski has used the style to zero in on the tipping points in seemingly shapeless lives in his 2002 debut "Funny Ha Ha" and in 2005's "Mutual Appreciation."

His latest, "Beeswax" which premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival, is another small, self-effacing effort, and although it might not elevate his commercial status, it confirms that his characters are among the most complicated and keenly observed in contemporary American movies.

"It's one of my ambitions to make films that defy marketing," Bujalski said shortly before the first public screening of the film here on Monday. "The problem is, you finish the film and then you've got to market it."

Many of his peers have made movies with neat conceptual hooks: "Baghead," by the Duplass brothers, put a mumblecore spin on "The Blair Witch Project"; in Lynn Shelton's Sundance hit "Humpday," two straight buddies take a stab at gay pornography.

But Bujalski's films resist straightforward synopsis. It's not that nothing happens, but much of the drama happens almost imperceptibly, in shades of gray and on the level of subtext.

"Beeswax" revolves around twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (real-life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher), who share a house in Austin and are caught up in the confusing process of having to renegotiate various professional and romantic relationships.

Jeannie, who runs a vintage boutique, suspects that her business partner is plotting a lawsuit. Lauren, newly single and half-heartedly looking for work, stumbles into a job opportunity that would require leaving the country.

Only half joking, Bujalski suggests that "Beeswax" be considered a "legal thriller." "I was thinking of the way that everything is connected," he explained. "At one point I made a chart of all the off-screen characters. There's a huge number of these connections that of course don't lead to a big payoff or an explosion."

The characters in "Beeswax" are not typical mumblecore types -- instead of wondering how to act, they're a lot more inclined to take action. And though the film is very much character-driven, there is also a relative abundance of plot.

"It was a real challenge, the feeling that every scene was weighted with exposition," he said. "There wasn't much room to move things around."

As in his other films, the actors, the customary starting point for Bujalski, are nonprofessionals: Tilly is a teacher and Maggie an emergency-room doctor. It was Bujalski's advisor at Harvard, the filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who spotted Maggie walking by one day and told Bujalski to cast her in his thesis film.

He met Maggie's twin, Tilly, shortly after, and has since always wanted to make "a Maggie and Tilly movie."

Even though Bujalski tailored the script for the sisters, he switched their roles after their screen tests, and his expectations were routinely confounded on-set.

"You think, well here are the ways they're exactly the same, which is not true, and here are the ways they compensate for each other, which isn't true either."

Partly because Bujalski was living in Boston and his cast and crew were spread out across the country, he settled on Austin as a central locale. He had lived there briefly, and his films have screened at the city's South by Southwest Film Festival. ("Beeswax" will receive its U.S. premiere there next month.)

Bujalski is now an Austin resident again -- he started dating Karen Olsson, a writer and an old friend, while making the movie, and the two are getting married this spring. He's also begun testing the Hollywood waters.

He and a friend have sold an idea for a mainstream romantic comedy, and he has written an adaptation of Benjamin Kunkel's novel "Indecision" for the producer Scott Rudin.

As for mumblecore, with the media hype fading and the most talented of the filmmakers emerging from the pack, it seems destined for a natural death.

"We just got old," Bujalski said. "All this stuff about defining a generation, people only talk about that up to a point. I don't think it's relevant after 30 -- the generation is defined."

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