by Cynthia Fuchs

6 August 2009

If it's rare to see sisters at the center of a smart, mature, and artful movie, it's even more surprising to see them so keenly in tune.

Going for a Different Word

cover art


Director: Andrew Bujalski
Cast: Tilly Hatcher, Maggie Hatcher, Alex Karpovsky, Katy O'Connor, David Zellner, Ann Dodge, Nathan Zellner, Janet Pierson

(Cinema Guild)
US theatrical: 7 Aug 2009 (Limited release)

“I’m totally happy with things and if you’re not, why don’t you just say so?” It’s a sunny morning in Austin, Texas, and Scott (David Zellner) is just out of bed. He’s been thinking that Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), who’s still in bed, is his girlfriend, so he’s surprised to hear her say otherwise. “I’m only halfway in it. It doesn’t really seem fair,” she offers, as if looking to spare his feelings. Scott gets bold, as if calling her bluff: “If it’s not working for you, why don’t you just break it up?” She nods, maybe, says, “Okay,” and turns away from him and the camera before she says, “We should. We should try and break it up.”

Scott’s not prepared for this not-quite-a-pronouncement. Like most of the decisions made in Beeswax, Lauren’s seems almost accidental, as if it’s just occurred to her, as if she’s only responding to the chance he’s given her. Scott sputters some more, trying to regain control, of the language at least: “Try!? Talk about half-assed. If you wanna do it, let’s do it.” And with that the film cuts to Lauren, scampering across the street, looking very freed at last.

In this early scene, Beeswax lays out a mode that’s partly familiar, partly fresh. Like Andrew Bujalski’s previous films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), it observes young people who sort of know each other as they come to know each other better. Their conversations tend to be indirect, their ideas about themselves imprecise—they sense they should be making life choices, but they’re not at all sure that’s what they’re doing. Sometimes their options come up suddenly, as when Scott suggests Lauren “break it up” and so she does, or when she applies for a teaching job, gets turned down, then learns she has it after all, if she agrees to “get on a plane to Nairobi next week.”

Other times, options percolate, undefined and imminent. Lauren’s sister Jeannie (played by Maggie’s real life twin, Tilly Hatcher) first appears in her seeming element, a vintagey clothing shop called the Storyville Boutique. If Lauren lives contentedly in uncertainty, skipping from one surprise to another, Jeannie is both more determined and more serene, She makes her way from one display to another, adjusting dress folds and arranging beads, her rolling wheelchair a sign of her sense of ease. When Corinne (Katy O’Connor) appears at the door, Jeannie doesn’t see her as a sign of the trouble to come, but there she is, blandly gushy (“I just love small businesses and I love working in them!”) and newly hired by Jeannie’s partner Amanda (Ann Dodge). Equipped to deal with this minor bump, Jeannie sets Corinne to a task while she takes a phone call from Amanda: “It’s fine,” she reassures her partner, “But it would have been nice if you’d let me know last night.” 

As it turns out, Amanda’s up to something, and Jeannie knows it, though neither says it out loud. In the next scene, Jeannie’s home pouring over the contract Amanda’s father wrote up for them a couple of years before, wondering what she signed and how she trusted someone so blindly. To help with the deciphering, she calls an ex, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), currently studying for his bar exam. His first interpretation of the situation is straight-up legal (“It’s not a crime to take advantage of ignorant people”), but as they slip back into bed, he’s also ready to pursue the nuances. On her morning after, Jeannie isn’t quite so ready to bail as her sister was; when Merrill worries that she wants “go back to radio silence,” she smiles, “Maybe we could find some middle ground between radio silence and hot sex.” Merrill presses for definitions of “hot sex” but she sighs and tries to move on: “I was going for a different word.”

Most everyone in Beeswax is going for a different word, a more accurate, subtler way to think through complications. The parsing of the contract is a useful metaphor for this process of seeking and distilling, a process that seems both endless and hopeful. When Merrill just happens to run into Amanda, he takes the opportunity to learn more, approaching her as she’s getting into her car. He’s been talking to Jeannie, he begins, the camera cutting to manda to watch her reaction: “One of the things that’s really weighing on her especially is the possibility that you might potentially be considering perhaps possibly, uh, suing her in relation to all this sort of stuff?” Amanda squints, “I don’t think I really feel comfortable talking with you about that, actually, but clearly, I don’t want to do that and she doesn’t want to do that.” A minute later, Merrill’s on his cell to Jeannie with the answer: “I sorta kinda definitely think that she’s gonna sue you.”

At once a description of the plot that’s unfolding and a cleverish riff on the commercial labeling of “mumblecore,” Merrill’s verbal gymnastics here are also a lovely bit of poetry. His concerns are clear, as are his feelings for Jeannie, for all his seeming in-articulation. If language can only approximate, that’s fine too, for too much definition means limits, ends, and rules. Like other movies in the so-called genre, Beeswax implies more than it delineates, Matthias Grunsky’s handheld camera detailing what’s unsaid or said imprecisely.

Nowhere are these possibilities better realized in Beeswax than in the sisters’ relationship. For at last this is the film’s center. If each has her own trajectory, both see themselves in the other. A sequence that shows Jeannie taking photos of Lauren—they’re off in a field, Lauren’s green dress set off by green trees while she swings and climbs and tips upside down on a rusty gate to nowhere. They laugh, Jeannie directs and loses a shot (“You’re hard to catch, dude!”), then finds another. As the scene ends, Lauren’s carrying Jeannie and the chair, traipsing across the uneven ground, their faces close, smiles wide, intimate and expressive. If it’s rare to see sisters at the center of a smart, mature, and artful movie, it’s even more surprising to see them so keenly in tune.



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