Brooklyn, like Oakland and the Mission District, has swelled in the last decade with postadolescents: beards and black hoodies wandering streets on the verge of gentrification. This intermediary space is the setting and premise for indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski's latest, Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski first made a splash with Boston-based Funny Ha Ha (2002), an unassuming feature made in the tradition of talky indie forbearers John Cassavetes, Eric Rohmer, and Richard Linklater. Mutual Appreciation again collects a group of guarded postgraduates for its cast, but the film is no angsty trifle. Bujalski pulls off that impossible trick — always surprising no matter the influences — of affecting a naturalistic, improvisational flow while maintaining a clear authorial voice. It's a dynamic that picks up steam with each exquisitely staged scene, making Mutual Appreciation as absorbing as anything you're likely to see at the movies this year.
How then do we account for this guided freewheel? Cinematography is, as always, at least part of the answer. The grainy 16mm black-and-white film stock isn't mere affectation but rather a functional stylistic element, underscoring the drab reality of the movie's unsettled spaces: apartments with everything secondhand and mismatched, unmade beds on nicked hardwood floors, and rooms that are either too big (making one fret over the lack of proper furniture) or too small (making one crouch). Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky court these challenging spaces, always coming up with a revealing composition that frames characters in depth — splayed against walls or hunched in makeshift chairs.
While Bujalski has clearly done his homework on no-budget cinematography, his narration style seems more instinctual and basic to the film's shape. Like exemplar François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Mutual Appreciation pivots on a youthful, untested ménage à trois: boyfriend-girlfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) and Ellie (Rachel Clift) have lived in Brooklyn for some time, while Lawrence's old friend Alan (Justin Rice) is new in town, lost in an existential quandary over his life and music ("It's like pop"). Like so many of his progenitors, Bujalski has an innate sense for particular rhythms of talk. This isn't just a matter of dialogue ("If you kiss me now, my breath's going to be all beery and burrito-y") but also of editing — knowing, for example, how to exit a scene, convey a relationship with an unevenly paced phone conversation, and let the camera run on a given close-up to register a character's unguarded reactions.
More impressive is the way Bujalski subtly orchestrates little one-acts to achieve genuine drama. The principle instance of such narrative structuring is in the many scenes between Lawrence and Ellie, and Alan and Ellie, but none between the old friends in question (until the closing minutes anyhow). If Mutual Appreciation's narrative seems accidental, it's a testament to Bujalski's understated technique. There is certainly method here, from repetitions of dialogue ("That's flattering") and theme (gender confusion) to the patient unveiling of character, the apotheosis of which is a sequence of scenes tracing Alan from one Warholian party to another, no better for the omnipresent tallboys of beer.
What begins as nonchalant talk blooms into compelling drama by movie’s end. It seems no coincidence that one of Mutual Appreciation's three main characters is an indie rocker. Bujalski, after all, registers the fear and trembling that twentysomethings expect from music (middlebrow Indiewood being as unlikely to produce something relatable as the French "cinema of quality" from which the New Wave broke away). But Mutual Appreciation is more than an outlet; in its illuminating narration, many will see a mirror, an ode to these transitional places in which one blusters toward adulthood, talking all the way.