The "mumblecore" label—used to describe crude-looking improvisation- and hesitation-heavy American independent productions populated almost exclusively by underemployed white creative types—has been applied so often to the films of Andrew Bujalski that it's become all too easy to forget what makes them exceptional. That term was even coined five years ago by one of Bujalski's sound editors, or so the story goes.
But first and foremost, Bujalski has shot each of his three features on grainy film instead of topsy-turvy digital video, the medium of choice for almost all of his alleged mumblecohorts. This gives his casual examinations of early adulthood an appealing throwback quality; they feel more lovingly rough-hewn than hectically slapdash. And Bujalski's scenes also maintain a rough spatial continuity, making them a good deal less disorienting than, say, anything from Joe Swanberg .
Bujalski's first two features, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), both shot on 16 mm, were good-humored character studies about relationships and (the lack of) communication during periods of quarter-life crisis. And while those films certainly had their nebbishy charms, Bujalski's third, Beeswax, out this week on DVD (and also available to stream on Netflix), is something altogether more ambitious. The cast is still stocked exclusively with non-professionals, and an easygoing improvisational air carries over. But Beeswax is shot on higher-fi Super 16 and it takes as its primary concern something more substantial than just a painstaking naturalism: the uncomfortable intermingling of personal matters with business concerns.
A good portion of Beeswax takes place in an Austin, Texas, shop called Storyville. It's described at several points as a used- and vintage-clothing store, but there also seems to be a great deal of floor space devoted to surpassingly kitschy bric-a-brac. It's perhaps Bujalski's greatest joke that this supposedly curated heap of stuff serves as the movie's primary point of contention. Storyville is co-owned by Amanda (Anne Dodge) and Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), who is paraplegic, something the film doesn't belabor in the least. Equal partners by contract, both their friendship and business relationship have long since soured. Jeannie, who runs the store's day-to-day operations, complains she does it all, while Amanda claims that she feels increasingly pushed out.
While the question of whether Amanda will sue Jeannie hangs over the film—and Bujalski has described the film, presumably in jest, as a legal thriller—Jeannie's relationships with two others get significantly more screen time. She lives with her carefree twin sister, Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), who's considering going abroad to Kenya to teach. At the beginning of the film Jeannie also reconnects with an ex-boyfriend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student who offers both legal advice and emotional support. He's about to take the bar, but Jeannie and her potential predicament come to consume most of his attention. Effortlessly moving between tenderness and tactical planning, Karpovsky and Tilly Hatcher carry the film.
Adopting a bit of the anti-chain ethos of his setting, Bujalski portrays the near-heroic effort of more or less single-handedly running a small, independent business in the shadow of larger corporations. An ultimately unsuccessful talk with a potential Storyville investor takes place in a heart-of-Texas coffee shop next door to a big-box retailer with a conspicuously truncated sign reading "Wal." One of Jeannie's employees, Corinne (Katy O'Connor), tries to allay her boss's fears that she will get arrested at an equal-marriage-rights protest with one of the film's more amusing lines: "I think I can manage to be both righteous and punctual." Most of the movie's characters seem to be struggling to strike a similar balance between offering support to friends and causes and, more materially, supporting themselves.
In Beeswax, Bujalski himself also seems to be more concerned with punctuality than he has been previously, at least in terms of laying down exposition. Beeswax is much less lackadaisical than Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. But the director manages to take on a more fully developed story without forsaking his remarkable sense of drift, his characteristic attention to the days idled while big decisions (whether to take legal action, whether to rekindle an old romance, whether to move abroad) loom on the horizon. In short, Bujalski gives us plenty of reasons to mind his Beeswax.