In Theaters: Beeswax

Movieline Score:

Andrew Bujalski's films are all about improvisation. I don't mean that he doesn't write a proper screenplay, or even that he crafts his scripts, Mike Leigh-style, from actors ad-libbing in character. I mean that Bujalski's movies are about the daily improvisations of getting through life, the way events surprise or confuse us on a minute-to-minute basis. They're about how everything you say -- to your friends, to your lovers, to the lady at the cash register -- is improvised. "I needed the characters to be figuring out what's happening as the audience is," Bujalski has said. "Not telling the audience what's happening, but struggling through it themselves."

Bujalski's third feature, Beeswax, offers the best arguments yet both for and against his filmmaking method. As in his first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation -- which earned him the (likely unwanted) status of patron saint of the so-called mumblecore movement -- Bujalski has cast Beeswax with nonprofessional friends, plopped them down in lived-in locations, and shot them talking, eating, sleeping, and talking some more. When Bujalski's lo-fi aesthetic works, it creates the illusion of spontaneity, and his films feel truthful to a degree beyond the reach of most filmmakers. When it doesn't, his films dwindle away to nothing before your eyes.

That Beeswax works more often than it doesn't suggests there's still life in Bujalski's method, as long as he keeps casting friends as compelling as Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. The real-life twin sisters are the best actors Bujalski has yet cast -- that is to say, his most interesting friends we've yet met. Tilly Hatcher, in a wheelchair due to a spinal cord tumor, plays Jeannie, the part-owner of a resale boutique in Austin. Maggie Hatcher plays Lauren, Jeannie's lost-at-sea sister, who's looking for the next thing in her life after a breakup. Both are spiky and fascinating, and they play off each other with an ease and grace that's rare in any movie. They're sisters, and they're emotionally and physically comfortable with each other, so their unforced, unfussy interactions play as real as they presumably are. Late in the movie, Jeannie has asked Lauren to model for a store advertisement, and they banter easily while Jeannie shoots photos of Lauren leaning against a fence. When Jeannie suggests another location, down a rutted path, she hops adroitly onto Lauren's back, Lauren picks up her wheelchair, and they're off. It's a scene that would take professional actors a day of rehearsal to get right, but the Hatcher sisters have been rehearsing for this shot their whole lives.

In between shifts at her store, Jeannie rekindles a romance with her almost-a-lawyer ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky, a winning personality on screen), as he helps her navigate a legal imbroglio with her often-absent business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge). The exact legal issue isn't made entirely clear but, tellingly, revolves around the nonspecific language in their partnership agreement. Indeed, Beeswax is attentive to the rhythms, elisions, and failures of language to an uncanny degree. Characters rehearse speeches, curse their inoperable cell phones, make terrible jokes that sounded better in their heads. "We should try breaking up," Lauren tells her boyfriend. "Unfortunately for you, you seem like a fairly intelligent person," a lawyer explains to Jeannie. Bujalski's embrace of the improvisatory spirit seems even more explicit than usual, as exchanges between characters play like relaxed improv comedy, with characters quietly picking apart their own and their scene partners' phrasing: "'Try breaking up?' Talk about half-assed," Lauren's indignant boyfriend says. "If you wanna do it, let's do it." (It's no surprise that Karpovsky, an indie director and aesthetic fellow-traveler, just made a documentary, Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, about the genius Chicago improvisers Dave Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski, whose scenes tend to start at lexical nitpicking and spin out of control from there.)

At times, Beeswax devolves into banalities, especially when Bujalski tries to impose a plot upon his disorderly characters. The question of whether Lauren will go to Africa for some amorphous job hovers over the film with the subtlety of an anvil on a fraying rope, and the film's central plot question -- will Amanda sue Jeannie? -- never feels all that important. As a legal thriller, Beeswax leaves a lot to be desired. Bujalski's inability to build suspense into his plot -- or maybe his lack of interest in the mechanics of plot altogether -- suggest that there's only so far that his chosen method can take him. It may be that he spends his whole life telling the same kinds of stories, and telling them well; that would be a career of sorts, if one of likely diminishing returns. But for now, enjoy Beeswax for being as frustrating as life: a welcome portrait of two smart, caring women, navigating their mistakes, and the men in their lives, and the wheelchair in the trunk -- figuring shit out as they go along.

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