With Beeswax, Andrew Bujalski continues his project of crafting intensely observed, dialogue-driven character pieces that make use of nonprofessional actors and privilege the seemingly empty moments in conversation. While such an approach can easily merit amorphous, if dismissive, descriptors such as “indulgent” or, more hostilely, “bullshit,” the test of this method’s validity is, first, whether the characters emerge vividly enough to sustain continued interest despite the lack of more structured methods of characterization and, second, whether the gaps, non sequiturs, and awkward one-offs that constitute much of the dialogue get at something deeper in the ways of human interaction than would be possible with a series of more smoothly modulated exchanges. But unlike some of Bujalski’s associates in a certain, much-derided pseudo-movement, the Beeswax director has an easy way with his nonprofessional cast, his work with actors resulting in the projection of a natural confidence that only seems tossed-off as they sell dialogue that rarely devolves into mere “mumble,” instead frequently suggesting larger meanings resting just beyond the spoken word.
Swapping the grainy black-and-white of his previous feature, Mutual Appreciation, for a softer, pastel-inflected color palette (DP Matthias Grunsky does great things with greens) and tightening up some of the Faces-derived ramblings of the earlier picture, Beeswax charts a few days in the life of a handful of Austin thirtysomethings. While Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur, struggles to run her vintage clothing shop as she faces a possible lawsuit from her absentee business partner, her sister Lauren (real-life twin Maggie Hatcher) helps her mother run her nonprofit organization and debates taking a teaching job in Africa. Seeking out Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), an ex-boyfriend studying for the bar exam, for legal advice, Jeannie winds up sleeping with him and the two spend much of the film’s running time together, chatting idly, planning legal strategy, or seeking out new investors for Jeannie’s boutique.
Beeswax is largely concerned with the imprecisions of language and the ways in which people are forced to get by under less than ideal linguistic circumstances. From the ambiguous wording of the legal contract binding Jeannie and her business partner to the awkward fumblings of interpersonal exchange everywhere on display, the lack of certainty in the character’s lives is continually mirrored in the lack of precision in their language. Even a tossed-off bit of dialogue in which two characters pick apart the common expression “kick ass and take names” questions the assumptions of a stable idiomatic language. If we deconstruct the common and unexpressive ways of communicating, exemplified by the halting conversations in Bujalski’s films, we may reach the limits of language as a tool of exchange, but we may also discover new possibilities in its usage.
Thus we get scenes like the one where Jeannie and an employee engage in a tortuous back and forth involving the employee’s potential arrest at an upcoming protest in which neither party is able to quite make clear her position, as well as moments of awkward blurting as when Merrill tries to comfort Lauren on the death of her first boyfriend by quipping, “Maybe if you were a better girlfriend in high school, he’d still be alive,” a joke that he assures everyone sounded pretty funny in his head. But Bujalski also gives us scenes like the one where Merrill and Lauren talk somewhat mystically about the spirits of the dead, a lovely exchange in which, while neither articulates anything like a coherent attitude toward the beyond, the two come to a genuine understanding, drawing much needed comfort from each other without the slightest physical embrace. In such scenes, Bujalski, ever the skeptic but never the cynic, posits language as a potential means of mutual reassurance and healing. If humans are to successfully sustain meaningful relationships—a possibility the filmmaker fully embraces—then, Beeswax suggests, it’s only through the successful shaping of language that we can hope to achieve such a deeply-desired result.