For all the yakking done in Mutual Appreciation—and almost the entirety of its 108 minute run time is talk talk talk—very little is said. Its three leads favor the sort of wordy banter that seems to signify profundity on the surface, but really just functions to obscure the inchoate thoughts and longings burbling beneath, which only ever emerge in stolen glances and shared smiles. Theirs is a mutual confusion, dancing around one another in a self-conscious discourse so endemic of a certain breed of highly educated, artistically and academically inclined 20-something set who haunt the urban hipster warrens of New York. Their supreme ambition seems to find satisfaction in talking about how to affect their vague ambitions, without ever really articulating and actualizing them; their life plans being making life plans they never quite realize. Contentment in listlessness is the best they can muster, and a noncommittal mutual appreciation the best way they can regard one another.
And they would be an unbearable trio, and Mutual Appreciation would probably be well nigh unwatchable, if they (and the film) just weren’t so gosh darn cute. I mean, seriously cute—I want to hug, and be hugged, by this film. And I don’t really know how this happened, or why I feel this way, since I generally detest films of this ilk; navel gazing self-important 20-somethings blathering on in tedium. But there’s a certain winsome charm at work that never feels forced, but instead injects a shot of genuineness which saves Mutual Appreciation from the solipsistic slag heap. Films that operate nearly entirely on aimless charm need to walk a very fine line between cloying and insufferable in order to succeed. Andrew Bujalski’s revelatory second feature walks this line with a preternatural confidence that is surprising, impressive, and not a small bit exciting.
But it’s hard to locate where this excitement lies, exactly. Somewhere in the narrative? But wait, there is no narrative, no story here. Alan (Justin Rice, of the excellent indie rock band Bishop Allen (his bandmate Christian Rudder appeared in Bujalski’s first feature, Funny Ha Ha)) is crashing on couches and spare beds in New York City, trying to get his fledgling music career back on track, and hanging with his best friend Lawrence (Bujalski) and his girlfriend Ellie (the remarkably assured and winsome Rachel Clift). During his stay, Alan hooks up with a DJ from a college radio station, plays a gig at North Six, drunkenly wanders into a very very funny wig theme party at a random apartment, hits up his dad for money, flirts with Ellie, and…. well, really, that’s about it.
During its entire run time, nothing happens, nothing at all of note—and yet, everything does. There is something profound thrumming just beneath the mundane, and frankly, boring, goings on of the film we view; something we only ever become aware of precisely because of its absence from the text of the film itself. Mutual Appreciation‘s chief concern seems to be to show exactly those long lolling stretches between “significant” events, the down time between the strung together moments that make up “normal” movies. Everything of seeming importance is deliberately left out, punctuated by abrupt jumps in the listless flow of talk and meandering about the city. These sharp edits punctuate the scenes that are “missing”, drawing our attention to these lost moments even as the film refuses to reveal them, leaving it to the audience to infer or assume what “happens”. Mutual Appreciation is little more than a long parenthetical phrase, a collection of glancing tangents, a long footnote to the real, hidden, film.
It’s like this: There’s a key scene late in the film as Alan and Ellie sit on his bed, stuttering around their feelings for one another, but again talking nothing, nonsense. Coy banter, neither saying what s/he means: this is leading somewhere, or nowhere, she saying she should leave, Alan makes her promise to stay for just 10 more minutes. It’s inconsequential, but there is looming consequence. As she flops down next to him for the 10 minutes, the film leaps, abruptly, to the next morning, and this could be waking up 10 minutes later, or 10 years later. Any other film would probably have shown sort of passionate, or fumbling, consummation, some sort of affirmation of what happened. And yet, though Alan and Ellie are together in bed as the sun bursts in, all we know is that we really don’t know what happened, despite what should be obvious appearances.
It’s a brilliant trick, even though I’m not really sure exactly what the trick is, since it seems so simple—and I really don’t know how Bujalski pulls it off, or what he’s trying to get at, except maybe something about life being of the stuff between “shit going down” (nods to Lennon). It’s like there’s a very tight, but infinite, space where essence is found, and Bujalski knows that it’s impossible to catch it on film, that it can only be truly seen by revealing its invisibility.
But then, maybe we should only concern ourselves with what is there, and then we become fidgety, because there is something a little uncomfortable about Mutual Appreciation, this vague idea that we are intruding, spying, on life, real life, quotidian life, as it is going on. Shot in grainy 16 mm with somewhat steady static hand held takes, it’s like we are monitoring these peoples’ lives via cheap hidden cameras. The leads - actually, all the “actors”—are amateurs, their dialogue seemingly impromptu and improvised (though you feel it is very tightly written and controlled by Bjualski), their mien self-conscious yet somehow unaware, innocent, giving the film a verisimilitude of life despite the awkwardness and occasional hesitations. It’s like the film dives down some cinema verite rabbit-hole where its very self-awareness of its own strain for authenticity, usually so damning, actually transmutes it into the rhythm of life it is trying to artificially replicate. Again, neat trick.
If Mutual Appreciation can be faulted for anything, it’s a certain quaint anachronism, an aesthetic that seems new and refreshing only because it’s been absent for so long. Other reviews have already pointed to the influence of that godhead of American independent cinema, Cassavetes, and they are right. Me, I got the same rush watching Mutual Appreciation I did when I first ran across early Godard, so there’s my pretentious name-drop. And indeed, if the entirety of Mutual Appreciation reminds me of anything, it’s the long bedroom scene between Michel and Patricia in Breathless—the same revolving banter, the same fumbling for honesty, the same cuts, the same lost moments which we never see—perhaps coupled with the fractured, willfully frustrating Masculin/Feminin.
Regardless of influence, Bujalski, though swimming in the stream of New Wave/indie cinema, seems foreign and out of synch in today’s landscape, a maverick by default. For a film aimed squarely at a particular demographic—post-collegiate pre-adult 20-something hipsters and drifting early 30s perpetual grad students—I doubt Mutual Appreciation will appeal. The film is probably more of an unflinching mirror that they’d care to acknowledge. Compared to the vapid quirk of a Garden State or Wes Anderson’s work thus far, Mutual Appreciation lacks the surface idiosyncratic oddballs, sophomoric platitudes and certified hip soundtrack embraced and adored by today’s cultish viewers. Which is a shame, since by any reckoning, Mutual Appreciation should be a definitive statement, the sort of sub-generational rallying point that gets the immediate recognition and cult canonization it deserves.
The DVD has both short and long extras. There’s a smattering of trailers and stills, and a short eight-minute film that focuses on two secondary characters (Alan’s dad and a record label owner) that merely glances off the main film (and is shot in color). But the real gem here is an utterly unique and endearing commentary track comprised entirely of the parents’ of the cast and crew riffing and musing on the film as it unfolds. Congratulatory, condemnatory, and sometimes confounding, it is the perfect counterpoint to the somewhat solipsistic undertow the film threatens to succumb to, a second take that may be just as integral to understanding Mutual Appreciation as the main program sans commentary is.
Some of the parents are remarkably astute, commenting in depth on the aesthetic choices of the film, on how it all feels like voyeurism, and is just an uncomfortable watch because it seems so real. Others make catty comments about cast members (one woman, the mother of Alan’s drummer in the film, hilariously keeps belittling Alan for being a pretentious showboater, with greasy hair to boot, while continuously praising her humble, well kempt and handsome son. Awesomeness!), or simply throw there hands up in frustration at how listless and unambitious “kids” are these days. It’s an absolute joy to watch along with them (unlike the majority of such tracks, which are usually tedious bores) and really roots and contextualizes the film more than any directorial or cast attestations could, cementing the whole slice of life angle that much more firmly, turning what would have been an inconsequential bit of narcissistic fluff into a great big endearing group hug.