Mutual Appreciation

Mutual Appreciation gets its Los Angeles debut next week as part of AFI FEST, but writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s previous feature, Funny Ha Ha, was so good I decided to go ahead and order Mutual Appreciation‘s DVD from the film’s official website. ($15 Paypal, flat rate.) The DVD is a no-frills affair, but Bujalski’s handheld, black-and-white, 16mm veritÈ style doesn’t require a fancy digital transfer, either, and the disc is perfectly watchable. (It even came with a scrawled note: “Mr. Cummings, Thanks for your support–Hope you enjoy this–Andrew.”)

And enjoy it I did; Bujalski has a rare talent to reveal contemporary, post-college twentysomethings with an immediacy and relaxed seriousness that is genuinely engrossing. He has been compared to Rohmer, but then any talky film with young romantics of the past forty years has been. He has also been compared to Cassavetes with his films’ roughhewn camerawork and spontaneous, naturalistic performances. But Bujalski seems less interested in Cassavetes’ darker recesses of human emotion than the everyday tensions of personal stasis versus “progress” (relational and professional), and the rhythmic tide of loyal friendships and awkward encounters. Bujalski’s protagonists are unpretentious yet searching, highly conversational yet fumbling with words.

Justin Rice, who provided a hilarious bit part in Funny Ha Ha (the roommate who gets beat up by the neighborhood kids) plays the lead in Mutual Appreciation just as Kate Dollenmayer (who played the lead in Funny Ha Ha) offers an eccentric cameo in Mutual Appreciation. Plot is offered in a minor key in both of his films; in the latter, Rice plays Alan, a struggling young musician who moves to New York City and attempts to break into the music scene. He often hangs out with his friends, a couple from Boston, Ellie (Rachel Clift) and Lawrence (Bujalski), and the three are vividly caught between the carefree indulgences of college life (drinking, lounging about) and making new connections from which to build their careers. Most of the film portrays
them fulfilling one role or the other, and delights in their rambling conversations and day-by-day peculiarities.

Like Funny Ha Ha, the film benefits enormously from a charismatic and unique lead performance that seems relaxed almost to the point of boredom yet is oddly fascinating, compulsively watchable, and ultimately touching. Rice has a peculiar rhythm to his deliberate way of speaking, delivered in halting cadence with a barely perceptible grin that adjusts itself by degrees of friendliness, nervousness, and amusement. Although much of the film was apparently scripted, it feels amazingly fresh and spontaneous and there is real energy in the interactions between characters. Unlike Rohmer’s films (or even Linklater’s), these aren’t characters with fully-formed worldviews intermingling, but simple, well-adjusted eccentrics who seem almost overwhelmed by the world (including pushy doctors, students, and radio show hosts) and hope to navigate its challenges moment-by-moment.

Both films are comedies, but not in the typical sense of witty one-liners or slapstick construction, but in the random, almost chaotic way in which the characters traverse their lives, aided by the loose, quasi-documentary style of the filmmaking. Bujalski seems to want to capture an unpredictable, improvised way of life among today’s young adults, and his films are so effective at communicating their characters’ underlying feelings and fragile modes of conversation that they become deeply observant and brimming with unforced empathy.

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