Review: Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation”

Andrew Bujalski, with only three films so far to his credit, has established himself as a major artist, and was the (reluctant) center of a loose independent film movement, or rather, collective that has been termed as “mumblecore.” The filmmakers working under this rubric, such as Joe Swanberg (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs), Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City), and Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair), make films that are analogous to certain trends in indie rock, appropriately enough for the milieu that Bujalski captures in his 2005 film, Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski’s films concern young people in their 20s and early 30s who are still figuring out what to do with their lives. They often talk in halting, tentative speech, their conversations filled with seemingly trivial details and digressions that very thinly mask their anxiety and apprehension. Bujalski’s first film Funny Ha Ha made quite an impression on observers for standing out immediately from the slew of hackneyed and cliché-ridden “indie” films that flood arthouse and film festival screens. Filmed on 16mm with close friends and associates with money raised nearly entirely outside of the industry, Bujalski captured the awkwardness and confused romantic entanglements of his characters with a sharp eye and an unforced wit.

Mutual Appreciation was superficially much in the same vein, but Bujalski has made a great leap forward with this film. Even though it exhibits many of the same qualities of his previous film, the elements fit much smoother here, and what sometimes seemed like affectation in his previous film here feels much more in tune with the situations and the characters. Filmed in 16mm black and white, the film’s set-ups and camerawork are quite simple and functional, but this enhances the film and directs our concentration toward the subtleties of his characters’ words and behavior, and Bujalski doesn’t try to distract us with show-off visuals. This shows his confidence in his material and his growing assurance as a filmmaker.

Alan (Justin Rice) comes to Brooklyn shortly after his band The Bumblebees breaks up after an EP that got some attention. He has booked a gig at Northsix, a Williamsburg rock club. He does a radio interview with Sara (Seung-Min Lee), who takes Alan to her house afterward and is not shy about acting on her attraction to him. Alan needs a drummer to play with at his gig, having come alone without a band. Sara hooks him up with her drummer brother Dennis (Kevin Micka). Alan, still pining for his ex-girlfriend, is not really interested in a relationship with Sara, although he hesitates to tell her so. Alan also spends time with two close friends, Lawrence (Bujalski) and his fiancé Ellie. Alan’s gig at Northsix is sparsely attended, and after the show he, Sara and Dennis are invited to the home of Jerry (Ralph Tyler), a friend of Alan’s father who has some connections in the music business. They get drunk and have odd conversations, and Alan, after speaking to his ex-girlfriend on the phone, seizes the moment to break up with Sara.

There are many other incidents in the film, including a monologue one of Lawrence’s students asks him to perform, but Bujalski eschews plotting in favor of a looser, improvisational feeling that captures his characters’ crossed signals and attempts to make sense of situations that bewilder them. Mutual Appreciation is a film that isn’t so much watched as experienced. There are none of the tried-and-true genre safety nets that so many filmmakers fall back on. The generosity of Bujalski’s working method and the beautiful and surprisingly emotional work that results are what makes his films such a joy to see. His work is obviously done out of a love of the craft and from a very authentic and human place.