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The Valley of Indecision: Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax”

The Valley of Indecision: Andrew Bujalski's "Beeswax"

Over-under-articulators might be the best way to describe the characters in the films of Andrew Bujalski. This of course is also a fairly apt encapsulation of the performance approach in many of the entries in the dare-not-speak-its-name American indie movement that Bujalski unwittingly jumpstarted back in 2004 and that now includes Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Lynn Shelton, and various others as its unofficial members. Yet it’s only fair to judge Bujalski’s work apart from this semi-collective, since when 2002’s word-of-mouther Funny Ha Ha first started making its way around people’s VCRs and DVD players (long before its limited theatrical run in 2005), buoyed by the acclaim of supporters like Amy Taubin and, natch, Ray Carney, it came across as spontaneous and fresh, a relatable, minor-key peek at post-collegiate aimlessness that was able to successfully aestheticize that sense of drifting through both shooting and performance style. It’s the latter, however, that continues to most glaringly define Bujalski’s work and which makes him, for better or worse, a true auteur: if there’s any sense of uniformity across the three films in his oeuvre thus far—Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and now Beeswax—it’s that he somehow manages to direct all his nonprofessional actors to the same hyper-dull communication level.

It certainly takes precision to get everyone to deliver his or her lines in a similarly introverted, halting, self-doubting manner. Yet despite the few steps forward represented by Beeswax (a slightly more expressive mise-en-scène, increasing generosity towards characters), with this film it’s become ever clearer that Bujalski’s amateur players are unable to approximate convincing interaction and that one needs actual actors to pull off such naturalism in such contained spaces and with such close-up character-driven drama. The vicissitudes of human behavior that Bujalski focuses on are difficult to recreate on screen by those with little experience; the result is that more often than not his actors seem more afraid of the camera than of each other. Of course there have been exceptions to the rule, or at least those performers who have used that instability and unvarnished style to their, and Bujalski’s, advantage, such as Kate Dollenmayer, likeably disenchanted and disengaged in Funny Ha Ha.

Likewise, for Beeswax, the director has found a pair of actresses — twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher — whose nonprofessional backgrounds and clipped, dispassionate line deliveries work well enough within the film’s context, even if their incessant shruggery keeps much of the film on a low-functioning plane; Beeswax is mostly pitched at the dramatic level of a wading pool. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Beeswax.

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