Indie film wunderkind Andrew Bujalski’s best attribute as a filmmaker is not his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo and speech patterns of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjects—who, to this ear, always 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, seemingly improvised conversational scenes. Mutual Appreciation, the director’s follow-up to his breakthrough Funny Ha Ha, is a modest step up from its assured predecessor in both content and form, revealing discerning truths about, and wringing deadpan humor from, 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 with Cassavetes (an association reinforced by Mutual Appreciation‘s bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematography), Bujalski makes movies that don’t seethe red-hot but simmer mildly, his sweet, stuttering protagonists (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 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), with the talkative action 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, the effect being that when something meaningful is stated—as when Alan argues in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits “willing to do stuff” for each other, or when Ellie confesses 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 (and its future-forestalling trio) may occasionally be, Bujalski’s sharp sophomore effort—courtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanism—ultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.