Andrew Bujalski’s best attribute as a filmmaker isn’t his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjects—who, to these ears, sound a bit too self-consciously aimless and uncomfortable to pass as authentic—but, rather, his knack for unearthing subtle insights about interpersonal relations from meandering, semi-improvisational dialogue. A modest step up from Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, which is acknowledged as the first mumblecore film, Mutual Appreciation reveals discerning truths about post-college anomie through a carefully arranged narrative structured around casual ellipses and sly symmetries, whether it be the juxtaposition of one evening’s dissimilar drunken parties or its pair of gender-role-reversal scenarios (one involving a man reading a woman’s short story, the other marked by some sloshed cross-dressing).
Though often compared to Cassavetes—an association reinforced by Mutual Appreciation’s bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematography—Bujalski makes films that simmer rather than seethe. His sweet, stuttering protagonists are based on, and played by, friends—all defined by their lack of direction, fear of obligation, and refusal to grow up. Reticence is the predominant tone struck by this tale of indie-rocker Alan (Justin Rice, co-founder of the band Bishop Allen), who, having moved from Boston to Brooklyn to jumpstart his career, develops a reciprocated crush on Ellie (Rachel Clift), the journalist girlfriend of his grad school buddy, Lawrence (Bujalski). As for the talkative action, it’s dominated by a sense of people willfully muting emotional expression in order to evade confronting potentially troublesome truths.
Articulations of genuine feelings are coded within rambling discussions about everything and nothing. As such, when something meaningful is stated—as in Alan arguing in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits “willing to do stuff” for each other, or Ellie confessing that “the problem with Lawrence is that he’s not the master of his own destiny”—the respite from the characters’ usual avoidance tactics is bracing. Throughout, Bujalski seems to self-reflexively comment on his own stylistic quirks, from Ellie overtly addressing a particular “long, awkward pause” to Alan saying, in an apparent jab at Mutual Appreciation’s peculiar rhythms, that he hates math rock’s “weird beats and time signatures.” Yet solipsistic as it may occasionally be, Bujalski’s sharp sophomore effort—courtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanism—ultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.
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