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‘There There’ Review: Andrew Bujalski’s Clever Gimmick Offers COVID Cinema Done Right

"Support the Girls" director Andrew Bujalski returns with a pandemic-era comedy that was shot without any of its actors being together.

Jason Schwartzman in "There There"

“There There”

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Mumblecore godhead Andrew Bujalski has always been able to make something out of nothing, a gift so intrinsic to his strengths as a storyteller — and possibly his worldview as a human being — that the less is more look of his films often seems to rub off on their lovable but isolated characters, as if form and content were bound together by a mutual inability to connect with a wider audience.

Some entries on Bujalski’s résumé are more aggressively lo-fi than others; career highlights include a drab workplace dramedy about the women of a Texas “breastaurant,” and a semi-improvised curio about rival nerds comparing their computer chess programs at a California hotel in 1980 (which was shot in fuzzy black-and-white on period-appropriate video cameras, just to ensure that it wasn’t too sexy). And yet, all of his movies tend to create their spark from the friction between intimacy and aesthetics, just as they tend to find their meaning by exploring the intimacy of aesthetics.

Never — not even during the halcyon days of 2002’s “Funny Ha Ha” — has Bujalski worked with less than he does in his restless new whatsit “There There,” never has he shot anything quite as plain-looking as this COVID-era iPhone experiment, and never has he made a movie that’s more viscerally concerned with how we see the space that separates people. If the faintly amusing final product is pretty thin gruel when compared to the rest of its filmmaker’s output, the project’s high-concept construction is clever enough to sustain the meandering story it tells.

At its best, the deceptively basic “There There” amounts to a clinical deconstruction of why even Bujalski’s simplest work is more complex than just two people talking at each other, and it will leave fans itching for the writer/director to scale up again now that life is back to something like normal.

Made at the height of the pandemic, “There There” is a gimmick film so low-key you may not even clock that it’s doing anything out of the ordinary. Then again, the story — “story” being a big word for what’s really just a round robin series of one-on-one conversations between coincidentally interlinked characters, each scene separated by a musical interlude from The War on Drugs multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez — is threadbare in a way that’s meant to call attention to its telling.

You can see it in the pair of post-coital POV shots that introduce two strangers (a bright-eyed nurse played by Lili Taylor and a genial, womanizing restaurateur played by Lennie James) in bed together the morning after they met at the latter’s bar. Or at least it looks like they’re in bed together; in reality, none of the actors in this movie were ever in the same room, let alone under the same sheets (cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot them all remotely via the FiLMiC Pro app on an iPhone Pro Max 12, a plausible strategy in a film where the camera never moves).

As a result, no two members of Bujalski’s cast are ever in the same frame, as the writer/director relies on narrative context, sound continuity, and surgically precise eye-lines in order to convince our brains to combine “there” and “there” into a single “here.” It’s essentially a more extreme version of the same phenomenon that allows us to sustain the shared reality between two different shots in any other film, but the effect is  just off enough that you can’t help but lean forward and try to make sense of how the actors relate to each other in space, and that — crucially — stokes an unusual curiosity about how their characters relate to each other in deeper ways.

Taylor and James share a crackling nervous chemistry, but the real tension in their first scene together stems from the palpable sense of natural intimacy giving way to awkward isolation as the lust of their night together is exposed to the harsh light of day. Bujalski’s framing creates a barrier that’s hard to put your finger on, as your thoughts become preoccupied with questions that other films might not require you to ask (e.g. whose apartment are they in?); it’s the feeling of someone being right next to you and a million miles away at the same time.

Molly Gordon in "There There"

“There There”

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“There There” taps into that feeling with such oomph — and with such well-drawn characters — that Bujalski’s disinterest in following through on any of it proves frustrating by the end, as he’s more interested in tracing what one character describes as “the tapestry of people that keep me above myself” than he is in knotting any of its various thread together. This is unambiguously more of an exercise than it is a movie, which is only a sore point because it feels just a few scenes shy of the closures it would’ve needed to become a fuller meal.

With the exception of an aggro social media entrepreneur (Avi Nash) and his guilt-stricken lawyer (Jason Schwartzman, communing with the dead in the only part of the film that lacks any sort of a pulse), every character here is messy and jagged and fascinating enough to follow beyond the two scenes Bujalski gives them each to play. That’s especially true of Annie LaGanga’s mother hawk of an AA sponsor, who shows Taylor some tough love before clipping over into the best scene of the movie: A parent-teacher conference during which she confronts her teenage son’s disaffected young English teacher (an excellent Molly Gordon) over the upskirt shots her kid is shooting in class and then sharing on the internet.

The encounter is brittle, unexpected, and mutually empathetic, as Bujalski’s strange technique allows both of these women to feel righteously self-possessed and wildly unmoored at the same time. The shared space between these characters is stretched into something raw and irreconcilable, every cut slicing apart the sinews of trust and faith that once held it together. By the end of the scene it feels like a single two-shot would be enough to create world peace. Anything seems possible — even dangerously so — when two people show trust and faith in each other.

Trust and faith in each other isn’t just what “There There” is about, it’s also how it was made (which might help to explain the consoling undertone of its title), but the collaborative energy required to make Bujalski’s pandemic sketch seems to have exhausted his willingness to see it through on screen, and the movie runs out of steam as if it were shot in real-time. Still, the essence of its author’s work has seldom been more legible than it is here.

“There There” is forward-thinking in some ways and a relic in others (it would’ve had a lot more impact if it came out last November). It hinges on the basic building blocks of cinema, while using them to construct a single-serving shrine to modernity. It’s a new Andrew Bujalski movie, against all odds, and a convincing reminder that you should be looking forward to however he defies them next.

Grade: B-

Magnolia Pictures will release “There There” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 18.

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