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Film Independent Thu 4.15.2021

Someone We Watched: How Andrew Bujalski Defined, Then Transcended, Mumblecore

Each year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards give the Someone to Watch Award to an emerging filmmaker of singular vision. In this column, film critic David Bax revisits some of the grant’s recipients to see how their work and careers have continued to develop.

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Andrew Bujalski is a man. And for the record, in case it wasn’t clear, so am I. So it would be presumptuous of me (in that very male way) to proclaim the filmmaker an expert at writing female characters or directing female actors. What can be safely stated, though, is that he’s displayed a keen, compassionate interest in women as people and an awareness that they must navigate through the world in ways different from those to which he (or I) would be accustomed.

That’s particularly true in both Funny Ha Ha, the debut film that won Bujalski the Someone to Watch Award back in February of 2004, and his most recent effort: 2018’s Support the Girls, which is a stone-cold masterpiece. Despite differences in age, ethnicity and geography, the protagonists of both movies are women attempting to locate a place for themselves in a world over which they have very little control.

Funny Ha Ha’s Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) is far enough away from graduation to no longer be considered “fresh out of college” but still too inchoate to feel like an adult. It doesn’t help that she was just fired from an unspecified job. Over the course of the deceptively slight runtime, she doesn’t look for work so much as she takes what she can get and spends the rest of her time thinking too much about the boy who doesn’t want her (Christian Rudder) while halfheartedly trying out the boys she doesn’t want, most noticeably a fellow temp, played by Bujalski himself.

It seems as if Marnie doesn’t consider herself enough of a person to bother advocating for herself. She can be an emotional doormat in ways that are as sympathetic as they are frustrating but there’s also something (probably) specifically female in her defusing tactic of insisting, “No, it’s okay” every time a man rightfully apologizes to her. Marnie is a beautifully flawed character in her own right but the daily impositions and indignities of existing as a woman aren’t exactly helping her get her shit together.

Bujalski regards Marnie as he regards the rest of the world, with eyes and heart wide open, a characteristic at odds with the general (and generally incorrect) perception of “mumblecore,” the American independent film movement that Funny Ha Ha largely defined. One common knock on such films is that they are full of indulgent, privileged navel-gazing. Bujalski’s humanism—not to mention the awareness suggested by casting himself as the toxic nice guy character—simply doesn’t fit the bill.

Another common complaint about mumblecore is the lo-fi aesthetic. Admittedly, Funny Ha Ha, shot on muddy 16MM film in under-decorated apartments with mostly poor sound quality, does have that feel. But there’s no denying Bujalski’s clear eye for composition and, with the help of cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, his technical adroitness at lighting his actors. And, hey, what’s really lost anyway by not being able to make out all the dialogue when the characters speak so naturally, in directionless, vexatious circles, often actually mumbling?

After the deserved critical acclaim of Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski released Mutual Appreciation, which had been shot before the former’s official release. He’s in front of the camera again this time, alongside Justin Rice, who appears in one scene in Funny Ha Ha. Dollenmayer makes a return, too, in a minor part. 2009’s Beeswax, premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, made clear that Buljaski was a part of the worldwide arthouse conversation.

But it was 2013’s formally and structurally daring Computer Chess that left even skeptics no longer able to relegate Bujalski to the “mumblecore” bin. A dry comedy slash retro sci-fi oddity shot entirely on era-appropriate consumer grade cameras, it proved what his acolytes already knew: that Bujalski’s interest in tiny, awkward human specifics was just a doorway into his expansive, even cosmic, way of looking at the universe and the diaphanous liminal connections that exist throughout it. It also proffered the important computer science theory that, “A man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.”

If Computer Chess proved that Bujalski could tell stories about people other than present day 20-somethings, 2015’s Results, about personal trainers, proved that he could also do so with a cast of established, professional actors (Cobie Smulders, Guy Pearce, Kevin Corrigan and others). The specificity of a workplace like a gym also presented new challenges and opportunities.

Which brings us to Support the Girls, a film with an almost entirely female, multiethnic cast set in a suburban restaurant and sports bar called Double Whammies, the branding of which has less to do with the food and drinks than with the attractiveness and skimpy uniforms of the young women serving them.

On its face, Support the Girls seems a long way from the movie that marked Bujalski as Someone to Watch nearly a decade and a half earlier. But these women aren’t actually so far removed from Marnie. When it comes to avoiding uncomfortable situations with men, they may be a bit more practiced as a result of their job, employing some varsity level flirting where Marnie would have just demurred. But if they have found a place in this world—something Marnie hasn’t quite done by the end of Funny Ha Ha—it’s because of the strength in numbers suggested by the title and, most importantly, it’s because they have a great boss in Regina Hall’s Lisa.

Near the end of Funny Ha Ha, there’s a scene where Marnie, having found employment as a research assistant, is taken out for coffee by a coworker, a woman not that much older but who seems considerably more secure and in control of her life. Lisa is essentially that same woman to her crew of Marnies and Support the Girls is a testament to the fact that, though she may not have it quite as together as she seems to, there’s a nobility in Lisa’s showing up every day and doing her best to help the people who look up to and depend on her.

Regina Hall in Andrew Bujalski’s ‘Support the Girls’ (2019)

Work was a concern for Marnie—Funny Ha Ha is not one of those movies that appears to take place in a world where people don’t need to have jobs—but Support the Girls puts it front and center. We watch these young women as they scrape by in life–looking to one another for help with money, babysitting, jumping a battery, etc.—with smiles on their faces and compassion in their hearts. The phrase “working class” tends to conjure up images of men with tools, trudging into factories or mines or toiling away underneath cars. But these women and the many service and retail workers like them all over the country are the working class too.

In case that makes Support the Girls sound like some kind of polemic, it’s worth noting that, like all of Bujalski’s movies, it’s very funny. Many of the laughs come from the drunken behavior of the bar’s regulars like harmless creep Jay (John Elvis), in much the same way Funny Ha Ha starts off with a hilarious scene of an inebriated Marnie trying and failing to get a tattoo.

Lisa and the servers at Double Whammies can laugh through their hectic, difficult work day because the one we see in Support the Girls is probably not all that different from most of the other ones. In Bujalski’s vision, just staying afloat is a permanent state. But there’s none of the patronizing miserablism of so many movies made about the working class for middlebrow audiences. These women are living, not surviving.

Other nominees: As a director, the only subsequent effort from Ben Coccio—who was nominated for the school shooter drama Zero Day—is a 2010 film called The Beginner. But he also co-wrote Derek Cianfrance’s great The Place Beyond the Pines. Ryan Eslinger, on the other hand, has directed steadily since being nominated for Madness and Genius (also about students.) He followed it up with 2007’s When a Man Falls (which starred Sharon Stone, Timothy Hutton, Dylan Baker and Pruitt Taylor Vince) and most recently made a 2018 sci-fi mystery called UFO with Gillian Anderson and David Strathairn, with a couple of other features in between.

Check out the winners of this year’s Someone To Watch Award (along with the Producers Award and Truer Than Fiction Award) below, presented by Shaka King:

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(Header: Kate Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha)

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