Yes, independent film is your beeswax

When I began this column this year with a loosely defined mission to spotlight the best in independent film, I was concerned about finding something worthy of writing about week in, week out. Happily, I found the opposite to be true, despite the unprecedented tumult and upheaval experienced by the indie sector in 2009. There is, to put it frankly, far too much happening, not too little.

While the mantra of company names that have ceased functioning has become familiar, so too have the new entities (the Cinema Guild, Apparition, Oscilloscope Pictures) that are emerging to replace them. And even with a fairly narrow definition, the notion of “independent film” this year can reasonably include the unlikely box office successes “Paranormal Activity” and “District 9" and the critical darling and likely Oscar contender “The Hurt Locker” alongside more conventionally indie-ish Sundance breakouts such as "(500) Days of Summer” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” In this moment of retrenchment and redefinition within the business, coinciding with what feels like a creative rejuvenation, it is no accident that ads for the upcoming 2010 edition of the Sundance Film Festival speak of “renewed rebellion” and “rebirth” while extolling an attitude of “Sundance, reminded.”

The reminder is that where there is an economy of means there can also be a richness of ideas, enthusiasm and creative vision. For me, perhaps no film this year captured the developing new spirit of independent film better than writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax.” This film is not a calling card to something bigger but rather defiantly its own thing, an elegantly subtle look at what bonds people together during times of crisis, be it family, love or friendship. In interviews, Bujalski has half-jokingly referred to “Beeswax” as a “legal thriller,” and he’s actually not entirely off -- if one of the film’s major narrative threads is a perceived threat of a lawsuit between two partners in a small business, that’s likely the closest many of us will ever get to the story line of a Crichton or Grisham novel.

The performances, by nonprofessional actors including real-life twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher, have a natural ease and slight air of anxiety about them, as the film’s characters grope their way through life. What makes Bujalski such a distinctive filmmaker is that there is a precision to his looseness; the film never seems haphazard even as it ambles along with a deceptively understated sense of purpose. Still picking up theatrical play dates around the country -- “Beeswax” lasted only a week in Los Angeles over the summer -- the film will be released on DVD in the spring.

If Bujalski’s film, made by a rumpled character about other rumpled characters, might seem like some idealized vision of indie filmmaking, writer-director Ramin Bahrani tosses those stereotypes out the window. Bahrani was dubbed “the new great American director” by Roger Ebert this year, and his third feature, “Goodbye Solo,” is serious but not humorless and is acutely sensitive to the changing realities of contemporary American life in its tale of beginnings, endings, new friendships and lost connections.

The film’s final sequence, in which an elderly Southern white man, a Senegalese immigrant cab driver and his young Mexican American stepdaughter all come face to face with their futures, could easily seem heavy-handed and didactic. In Bahrani’s hands the moments seem at once both light as air and as monumental as the natural rock formation around which the sequence is set, the Blowing Rock in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Despite strong reviews and mostly positive media buzz, neither “Beeswax” nor “Goodbye Solo” ultimately made much of an impression at the box office. For every indie breakout, even a modest success such as “In the Loop” (which topped $2 million), there are countless films struggling to even find screens to show on, let alone an audience to see them.

It’s too bad that “(500) Days of Summer” had to wring forced laughs from a feigned foreign-film-within-the-film -- featuring a malicious clown, a lost balloon and bemoaning of “endless suffering” with the implied punch line that international or art-house output is nothing but pretentious, inscrutable mopery. That the indie-yuppie creative class flattered and celebrated by "(500) Days,” who should be the very audience for such engagingly entertaining films as “Beeswax,” has seemingly lost the taste for more challenging filmmaking is disheartening.

While audiences now enjoy more options than ever before to see indie films -- festival screenings, commercial theatrical exhibition, micro-cinemas, VOD and streaming, the now seemingly old-fashioned DVD and newfangled Blu-ray -- there also comes a certain responsibility. For cinema to prosper, audiences must turn up, showing support not only for the obvious and over-marketed but also seeking out films equally worthy if less readily noticeable. Regardless of exhibition format there is a storm of creative, vibrant works falling under the current catch-all of independent filmmaking, making such films not simply rest stops in a trajectory toward Hollywood proper but worthy destinations in their own right.