Writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s There There, a funny and cleverly linked series of dramedic vignettes, doesn’t try to hide the stitchwork imposed by pandemic-period production restrictions. Instead, the film leans into them, creating a schizoid atmosphere that underlies and darkens some of the more seemingly straightforward relationship skirmishes and soul-searching soliloquies that fill much of its running time.
Over the course of six lightly connected stories, seven unnamed characters struggle to define themselves in relationship to others. The style is both stagey and experimental, a series of two-hander scenes in which the characters’ attempts to make connections or put up walls between them are impacted by none of the actors ever occupying the same space. While ostensibly pretending that the actors are sharing a room rather than performing to an iPhone, Bujalski also doesn’t hide it when backdrops change dramatically from one shot to the next, suggesting not so much intimate conversations as a string of people talking into the void.
The film begins in quasi-romcom terrain, with Lili Taylor and Lennie James resplendent and giggly after a one-night stand that seems to have been more than either bargained for. But James’s easygoing optimism and cheer soon abrades Taylor’s quick-surfacing anxiousness and they awkwardly separate. Introducing the relay-handoff format that Bujalski uses for connective tissue, Taylor is then seen having coffee with a friend (Annie LaGanga). In a style that will repeat throughout, the performers start off in one somewhat conventional key (morning-after “what do I do now?” debrief and gabfest) before transitioning into another more tremulous one (in this case, Taylor’s character struggles with addiction and possible mental instability).
The following story is a more uneasy one. What starts as a run-of-the-mill conference between a teenage boy’s mother (LaGanga) and his teacher (Molly Gordon) quickly becomes a Neil LaBute-esque power-play scenario where LaGanga’s anger over her son being caught uploading a disturbing video pushes her to bully and berate the hapless Gordon. The sadistic turn by LaGanga—eerie and almost predatory, hers is the most vibrant performance besides James’s—is made more unnerving by the deftly threaded suggestion of self-hatred.
The two stories featuring Jason Schwarzman as a shambolic lawyer have an easier comedic tone but are also not quite as interesting or revelatory. In the first, he starts out advising a brash young techie client (Avi Nash) about liabilities with the website that Nash started (maybe the same one that LaGanga’s son used) but ends up fighting to keep his job. In the second, Schwarzman has a surprise dark-night-of-the-soul tête-à-tête with a stern spirit (Ray Nathanson) who has a Dickensian moral lesson to impart. A final vignette with James and Gordon bantering and sparring at his bar shows characters once again operating on different wavelengths and not quite sure how to match up, ending things on an uncertain note.
Throughout, Bujalski toggles between comedy, light surreality, and philosophical inquiry, leveling things out with playful interstitials, in which the War on Drugs’s Jon Natchez performs a short solo on a range of instruments (clarinet, mandolin, and in one especially evocatively romantic piece, the piano). The result sometimes feels like a mash-up of his breezier comedies like Results and Support the Girls with his stylistic exercise Computer Chess.
The artifice of There There certainly generates an added layer of frisson that might not have been there were the film shot under more conventional circumstances. But the root material has enough rich humanity and taut conflict to it that the result would have succeeded regardless.