There is indie and there is indie and then there is Mutual Appreciation. The sophomore effort by Boston-based wunderkind Andrew Bujalski almost sounds like a parody of do-it-yourself filmmaking. Shot in 20 days on borrowed equipment using an obsolete medium (black-and-white 16 mm) and a nonprofessional cast, Mutual Appreciation is a comedy of mannerisms set in hipster Brooklyn. Seriously, how indie can you get? Indie enough, in this case, to be rejected by Sundance and ignored by Cannes, career-making film festivals more taken by the calculated whimsy of Me and You and Everyone We Know. The humblest of filmmakers, Bujalski wouldn't dream of indulging such a colossally arrogant title. Yet from where I'm sitting, he makes the only movies going that conceivably earn it.
Bujalski is the poet laureate of post-grad bobos from Brooklyn to Portland and every Urban Outfitted nabe in between. Like Funny Ha Ha(2003),his much-loved debut, Mutual Appreciation nails the walk and talk of twentysomething iPeople like nothing else. These movies get so deep in the heads of their shy, vigilant, sweet-natured protagonists that every passive-aggressive blip and conversational tic registers onscreen with beyond-doc authenticity. Bujalski gets his effect by tailor-making roles for friends, keeping plenty of space open for improvisation. But ultimately his talent is as mysterious as Cassavetes', to whom he is so often compared it's become a cliché.
The guy's a born filmmaker. No one can match his knack for the rhythms, inflections, and syntactic hiccups of everyday speech—the mumbled, fumbled ABC's of Gens X, Y, and Z. He's a master of the awkward pause and the meander of real talk, with a faultless ear for the conversational shuffle of "like" and "I mean." Mutual Appreciation one-ups the linguistic precision of Funny Ha Ha with a marvelously wry comedy of the 10-cent word. Listen when characters drop highfalutin stuff like "congenital," "emphatic," or "fallacious" into sentences. There's a tinge of sheepishness about it, a whispering self-consciousness. Bujalski is a first-rate ethnographer, his films a microscopic archive of the Friendster set. It's smart stuff, and funny too: Mutual Appreciation must be the first movie to get a laugh out of the word "puissance."
And with the exception of Pootie Tang (2001), it may also be the best film ever shot (partly) in that purgatory of hip called Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood everybody loves to hate plays a crucial role in Mutual Appreciation, the story of a fresh transplant named Alan (Justin Rice) trying to get a foot in the indie rock scene with little more than a gig at Northsix and a maxed-out credit card. His biggest fan is Sara (Seung-Min Lee), a DJ at Barnard's ultra-hip radio station, WBAR. She plays his records but wants to play in his pants; Justin's not feeling it but can't work up the nerve to tell her. He confides instead to Ellie (Rachel Clift), girlfriend of Lawrence (Bujalski), all three of whom kicked around Boston before striking out for New York. Appreciations are tested when Ellie develops a mild crush on Justin. The extent to which her feelings are reciprocated proves the emotional crux of the plot. How this dovetails into their relationship with Lawrence gives the movie its gently transcendent climax.
You might think of Mutual Appreciation as an emo cover of Godard's Masculine/Feminine:a meditation on the crisscrossed subjectivities of boys and girls, their mutual comprehension or lack thereof. Bujalski makes intuitive portraits of his people from the inside out rather than fixing them into a conventional drama. If his improvisational flux seems slightly random—each scene finding its own idiosyncratic entry and exit points, its own stubborn, singular rhythm—a closer look reveals coherent symmetries at play. In Mutual Appreciation, watch how Bujalski comments on hetero befuddlement with a pair of gender-switch conceits. Early in the film, Lawrence is invited to participate in a theater event where men read aloud monologues written by women. Later, an extremely drunk Justin stumbles into a house party where three feisty girls proceed to dress him up in drag. The movie is full of such deft patterns.
Mutual Appreciation is more than a new twist on the romantic comedy, more than a pitch-perfect period piece about the period we're all living in. The movie lays out its deepest concerns in an early scene where Ellie, Lawrence, and Justin are hanging out drinking cheap wine and discussing the difference between slacker Boston and breakneck New York. "You know," notices Justin, "most of the people who live in this town can't afford to live here. They're just scrapping, they just get by, and they just find a way to do it. And to have that instead of just having, like, comfort, I mean, for chrissakes …"
A question though, from Ellie: "What are you going to do? I mean, what are you going to do with all the swirling possibility in this town? How are you going to make it work for you?" To which, after a digression on the Sara affair, and a pause so Lawrence can fetch a loaf of bread (the only thing to eat in the apartment), Justin replies with his plan to establish "the cool, inclusive people's club."
"So. Imagine that you have all of these people and they're trying to get stuff done, and they all come together and they know there are other people around them trying to get things done. And, you know, you meet and you … you make it so that people can continue what they're doing only with the knowledge that there are other people out there also trying to do things. And everyone's there and they're sort of a resource and you can talk to people and they'll help you out. You know?"
Yeah, actually, I do. Justin's drunken spiel formulates the vague, omnipresent anxiety of a generation marked, in the words of Scott Foundas, "by its very lack of definition." At the heart of Mutual Appreciation is an urgent need to get onscreen the warp and woof of an unraveled social fabric—and help stitch it up with honesty and love. Bujalski is addressing a moment of such deep-rooted cynicism that any expression of sincerity gets parsed as a new form of irony.
Bujalski isn't a social critic. His films are more symptomatic than diagnostic. Their inestimable value lies in how thrillingly alert they are to what's good in people, for all their confusion and hurt, and the delicacy with which they trace the connections we make among ourselves, no matter how feeble.
Needless to say, a growing cult of admirers has embraced Bujalski as the voice of his generation—though as Amy Taubin, one of his earliest and most perceptive supporters, has noted, he must be "sick of reading that … when most of that neo-slacker demographic has never had the opportunity to see his films." The long strange trip of Funny Ha Ha from regional obscurity to cause célèbre to triumphant (if fleeting) theatrical release took three full years and is now an official chapter in AmerIndie lore.
Who knows how long it will take Mutual Appreciation to find its audience? Though it comes at the expense of the lovely cinematography, Bujalski has started offering tapes and DVDs on an appropriately unassuming Web site, www.mutualappreciation.com. That's how a copy ended up in my Williamsburg mailbox a couple weeks ago. On opening it, I discovered a handwritten note written in pencil on a yellow Post-It. "Mr. Lee, thanks for your support! Hope you'll enjoy this—Andrew." No better overture to Mutual Appreciation, as intimate, guileless, and handcrafted a film as they come.