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“It sounded so different than the way it came out”: Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax”

"Part of the ways we grow up is we sort of fail at being adults" - Zoe Kazan, on her role as Ivy in Bradley Rust Gray's 2009 film The Exploding Girl

"That sounded horrible... it came out totally wrong, I'm sorry. Why would I say that? That's horrible [...] In my mind it sounded so different than the way it came out. It sounded hilarious. It came out so not hilarious." - Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), in Beeswax

When Truffaut said that "the film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it," he was speaking of the movement toward films made for ever smaller groups of people. A few years ago, it seemed like that prediction might be about to come true, as a few young American filmmakers burst onto the scene (in the smallest possible way) with films about their peers attempting to navigate the confusions of early adulthood. It wasn't as novel a proposition as some have claimed, but it was an extension of one strand of 'realism,' aiming to capture the way my generation really talks and acts (or doesn't act). One of the first and best of this group of films was Andrew Bujalski's 2003 debut Funny Ha Ha, a film that felt to me like spending time with the friends I had left in Boston when I moved to New York. When I told this to Andrew in 2004, he suggested that the characters in his next project might be the people I had found when I arrived in New York. He was only half-right—Mutual Appreciation's characters still have heftier doses of indecision and malaise than the movers and shakers of my New York world—but the film captured the world of hesitancy and romantic uncertainty of the aspiring artist. 

Bujalski's third feature film Beeswax opens this week at Film Forum in New York City. It's a major step up for Bujalski's work in the distribution hierarchy—Funny Ha Ha drifted through critical praise during its festival run and screened on Sundance Channel before finding a theatrical release; his follow-up film Mutual Appreciation received a small theatrical release. Working with a slightly more plausible budget and a larger palette (shooting on Super 16, in 1.85 widescreen), Bujalski explores some of the same territory as in his previous two features—young adults in the world, doing their best to figure out how to be young adults in the world.

I've written in these pages previously that the anthropological aspect of many "mumblecore" films is one of their chief virtues; this might be more true of Bujalski's work than that of any of his peers. If Joe Swanberg's films are explorations of the way we use sex to navigate the gap between self and other, the Bujalski's are films that use language to explore the uncertainties of growing up. The characters in Bujalski's three feature films have tracked my own experiences of growing up, but not so much as they have Andrew's—he told me recently that the issues of each film were ones he was thinking about in relation to his own development while making the films: Marnie's "what am I going to do with myself?" confusion, Alan's struggle to figure out how to make a living and be an artist, Jeannie's struggle to be a successful small business owner.

In spite of Bujalski's sometime-statement that Beeswax is his take on a legal thriller, it is really a continued exploration of the dynamic between hesitancy and overarticulation among an overly self-conscious subset of Andrew's and my generation. Beeswax carries more narrative drive than its predecessors, and it's also funnier, in part because it takes its comedy more seriously—there are more scenes structured for comedic effect (at a few key moments, the cut to end a scene is the real punchline). Outside of this more enthusiastic comic sense, the main element that sets this apart from Bujalski's previous work is precisely that it has stayed mostly the same—portraits of uncertainty at 23 mean different things those same portraits 7 years later. The stakes are higher, for one thing; age brings business and family concerns and heavier responsibilities. Of course its easy for me to say that—Bujalski's films have been a fictionalized Up series for a segment of my generation that I recognize a bit too well. But it also makes me appreciate, on a personal level, the final gesture toward responsibility that closes the film, which perhaps points further toward the places his characters are headed. While I hope that Andrew will explore other social worlds in his future work, I also hope his camera will be along for the ride.

Great article Dave. I just saw Beeswax and loved it, and I felt that your words brought lots of insight into the film. Thanks.
I’m going to see it tonight, pumped! I love the comparison to the Up series, you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for writing this!

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