There's no filmmaker working today who more accurately captures awkward moments than Andrew Bujalski. Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and his new Beeswax unfold like fly-on-the-wall documentaries (though they're all scripted by Bujalski), following ordinary folks doing everyday things: toiling at temp jobs, crushing on a friend's significant other, bullshitting around the kitchen table, and generally trying to negotiate the dramas of life that are both small and life-changing.
In 2005, Bujalski told me that he bristles every time he hears his films called "Cassavetes-esque." I suspect he's also weary of the term "mumblecore," though he's used it in interviews (and, according to Wikipedia, it was coined by a sound editor who'd worked with Bujalski.) But his films are at the forefront of the genre (see also: Humpday, 2005's The Puffy Chair), and they've consistently defined its characteristics, with amateur actors shot using bare-bones techniques in naturalistic settings. Funny Ha Ha, about a recent college grad trying to figure out what to with her life, stayed in theaters for years, popping up in San Francisco more than once. Mutual Appreciation, a black-and-white look at a Brooklyn musician trying, uh, to figure out what to do with his life, opened locally but overall had less exposure.
Beeswax will surely lure Bujalski fans, but even those who think they hate mumblecore won't be disappointed by this tale. It's his best and most mature work to date, focusing on Austin, Texas twins Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) and Lauren (Maggie Hatcher). Bujalski's in his 30s now, and his characters while still facing uncertain futures have slightly more adult concerns. Vintage shop co-owner Jeannie (whose use of a wheelchair is presented matter-of-factly) worries that her aloof business partner is plotting a power grab, a conflict that unfolds alongside mini-crises, like cash register tape jamming or an employee having an emotional meltdown.
Seeking legal advice, she reignites her relationship with Merrill (Alex Karpovsky, playing the Bujalski role since the director doesn't act in this one), who's charming though prone to making accidentally rude remarks. Meanwhile, Lauren's inability to find steady employment leads her to consider taking a spur-of-the-moment teaching job in Kenya. As they fumble toward decisions emotional and practical, Beeswax simply steps back and observes. And as with all of Bujalski's films, it's hard not to get drawn in.
BEESWAX opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.