Watching Andrew Bujalski’s most recent work, Mutual Appreciation, one almost gets the feeling they are watching home videos of some great friends. There’s a familiarity to the characters, borne out of a dedicated realism evident in Bujalski’s style. The writer/actor/director has little use for effects shots, impassioned diatribes, intricate sets, and big actorly moments. Instead, the film is built on the quiet, often mundane moments in the lives of its characters – people hanging out, going to a concert, having a beer, or baking cookies. Mutual Appreciation is shot in a soft black and white, always in a natural setting; in apartments it looks like these actors might actually be living in themselves.
This is not at all meant to be a turn off though. It’s just the opposite, in fact. For it’s in these simple moments that Bujalski is able to show us something about life and what it means to be human. The moments then take on a new meaning, pointing us toward thoughts about friendship, guilt, love, fear, and loyalty. Yet, it all just feels, well, so normal, which appears to be exactly what Bujalski is aiming for. He has a knack for getting these “normal” performances out of his actors. Scenes are filled with ums, misspoken words, goofy jokes, and awkward pauses. For many, these could be the kind of elements that add up to boredom. But for the attentive viewer, there is much to be revealed.
A scene later in the film helps to see this more clearly. Ellie (Rachel Clift) heads over to Alan’s (Justin Rice) apartment to get a CD, or so she says. Clearly she has schemed a way to drive him home. Inside, Ellie asks Alan what he thinks of Buddhism, just to get some kind of conversation started. The cramped room, so indicative of where a guy like Alan might live, is the perfect setting for such a moment. Ellie presses on, doing most of the talking, introducing the subject of her boyfriend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski), and then quickly retreating, when she feels Alan not responding appropriately. Eventually, she gets down to it, and confesses her affection for Alan.
During the conversation, Bujalski often keeps both players in the shot – even his close-ups tend to keep the other person in the extreme foreground. But the edits aren’t typical of a scene like this. Normally, when someone speaks, the camera is on them. Bujalski is not so interested in this “rule”, instead leaving the camera mostly on Ellie, with shots of Alan interspersed that tend to be pretty short overall. This is Ellie’s scene. She initiates this conversation; she does most of the talking. But even at times when she is waiting for a response, Bujalski doesn’t shy away from shooting her face. We see her question herself, try to take back what she says, offer an openness and vulnerability to Alan, and she even reveals a kind of aggressiveness or determination (or maybe foolishness?) to get her feelings out in the open. All of this is available to us only because the camera sticks with Ellie so much – just by seeing her, paying close attention to her, we begin to get a sense of where she’s at in all this. But Bujalski is smart enough to trust the viewer, letting us make the connections instead of driving them home with perfunctory editing.
I like Bujalski’s films for a lot of reasons – the dialogue, his sense of humor, his taste in music, and the actors – but the trust in me as the viewer is maybe the biggest attraction. It’s inherent to his style, and as such, I look forward to Mutual Appreciation actually getting distributed in theaters, and/or released on DVD. I was able to see it only because Bujalski makes it available to us through his website, and because of the good graces of my wife, who got it for my birthday. How fortunate am I.