When Andrew Bujalski's first feature, "Funny Ha Ha," was released last year, the then 28-year-old director was tentatively anointed the voice of his generation. But what struck me was how articulately he seemed to speak for the generation just before his too.
His second feature, "Mutual Appreciation," elicits a similar nostalgic reaction, if perhaps not quite as tenderhearted. His characters may be contemporary, but his narrative style owes everything to the old-fashioned avant-garde. There's a rawness and immediacy to his work that cuts straight to the experience, a starkness that's startling in an age of bloated spectacle. Even Bujalski's method of recording his characters' high-ambivalence, low-wage, post-college ennui is a throwback — both films are shot on 16-millimeter film, this one in black and white, and his twentysomething characters inhabit a stripped-down, low-tech world shaped more by their financial reality than by any of the life-enhancing innovations of our brave new world.
In other words, if Bujalski's movies are accurate depictions of what life is like for kids today, then what life is like for kids today is remarkably similar to what it was like for kids 15 years ago. This is millennial youth culture as lived, not as imagined by demographers. You can't exactly call it progress, but it is thrilling (in a low-key sort of way) to see real young adults looking and acting the way they do, light years away from the toothy flesh-bots that have supplanted them on screen. Like an emo Cassavetes, Bujalski focuses on the hesitant, barely perceptible emotional transactions that characterize twentysomething life — even the most brutal interactions are sublimated by the imperative to be cool with them.
"Mutual Appreciation" follows a young musician named Alan (Justin Rice), kind of a rock star in college, who moves to Brooklyn from Boston after graduation to join his friend Lawrence (Bujalski) and try to make something happen with his career. It's clear from the first frame that Alan and Ellie (Rachel Clift), Lawrence's girlfriend, like each other better than friends. Alan used to front a band called the Bumblebees and is now looking for new people to play with, and Ellie admires him in the way that only a brainy, not entirely uninhibited twentysomething girl can admire a mercurial baby artist in a suit. The first scene quietly sets up the tension, as Lawrence comes home, finds his best friend and his girlfriend lounging on the bed, and hops in between them.
Soon after arriving in New York, Alan is interviewed on the radio by a young DJ named Sara (Seung-Min Lee). He is looking for a drummer, she introduces him to her brother, Dennis (Kevin Micka). Sara's attraction to Alan is as obvious as is his ambivalence toward her, though she chooses to interpret his passivity as a tacit go-ahead. Sara's physical endearments — she climbs on top of him on her bed, sits on his lap during dinner — are as awkward as Ellie's attempts to express her tortured crush. And Alan responds to both with a wide-eyed muteness that gives them little to go on. In fact, none of the characters seem capable of speaking in complete sentences, but their problem is not inarticulateness. Rather, they are too acutely aware of the complexity of their feelings, of the many levels of their awareness and of the contradicting layers that make up each experience to be able to express themselves simply. Their dialogue could be described as Cubist.
When Alan calls his father to tell him he's having some financial trouble, his father responds with a standard-issue chestnut about getting a job that's so egregiously out-of-touch it would be funny if it weren't so alienating. "Not an ideal job, but just enough to cover your expenses so you're not going in the hole and have a little bit of reserves," he tells him, as though this were even remotely possible for someone of Alan's age in New York. His father puts him in touch with his client Walter (Bill Morrison), a music industry professional who comes to Alan's show and invites him, Dennis and Sara over to his huge apartment for beers afterward. Alan drinks too much, and confronts Sara with his feelings. The exchange is a perfect dance of awkward brutality and preemptive defensiveness:
"I can't be involved with you in any way. It's not — I think you're a beautiful woman or girl, whichever you prefer."
"I'm not trying to be your girlfriend. I mean, I'm not trying to get anything from you."
"No, I know. I just can't even do that thing where you're not my girlfriend and I'm just making out with you."
Walter intrudes on this awkward moment, and Alan blurts out, apropos of nothing, "Do you want me to turn out like you?"
The world Bujalski creates for his characters is made up almost entirely of moments like these; tiny moments, fraught with ambivalence, marked by emotions left unexpressed. An observant and sensitive chronicler of the postmodern experience, he captures the mixture of yearning and fear at the twilight of adolescence, the dread of knowing that potential will soon, inevitably, congeal into the smug self-satisfaction of their elders (not that this seems even remotely possible, given the stark contrast between their realities) or, worse, failure, and gives a halting voice to it. Much is left unsaid, and some of what is said perhaps shouldn't be.
The movie ends as abruptly as it begins, in a scene that echoes the first one, with the three friends in an intimate moment. But the original moment has passed, and their attempt to pretend that it hasn't only highlights the fact. The moment may not be exactly heartbreaking, but at the very least there's stress fracture.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Distributed by Goodbye Cruel Releasing. Writer-director-editor Andrew Bujalski. Producers Ethan Vogt, Morgan Faust, Dia Sokol. Director of photography Matthias Grunsky. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Playhouse Cinemas, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500; Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500.