Beeswax (2009)

I recently had the great privilege to attend a public screening of Beeswax followed by a Q&A with director Andrew Bujalski. For several years I’ve been an admirer of Bujalski’s work, and for the better part of the last year I’ve been anxious to take in his latest effort. What a surprise then when the film finally screened in Dallas this week (after a five-month delay from its originally publicized release date here) that Bujalski would attend a couple of screenings.

First the film: it certainly sits well within the tradition of Bujalski’s first two films. All three of his features involve characters struggling to grow up, to find a direction, and to figure out who they are. And while the twin-sister leads in Beeswax seem a bit further down that road than the characters in either Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation, that’s actually a good thing. As a result, Beeswax feels more accomplished and mature than its predecessors. It’s my favorite of his films to date.

Beeswax retains a sense of aimlessness typical of his first two features as the twins try to figure out what’s next for them. Lauren is unemployed and considering a teaching job overseas while Jeanie faces struggles with her ownership partner in a local clothing boutique. However, Bujalski often and wisely underplays the struggle for direction in the lives of these women. When Lauren goes on a job interview, Bujalski only shows us the lead up to it, rather than the actual questions from a potential boss. When Jeanie goes with her friend Merrill to drum up financial support for the business, Merrill does virtually all the talking, leaving Jeanie virtually silent in the expression of her uncertainty about the future. These choices encourage viewers to pay close attention to the faces of the women and to those “unrelated” snippets of dialogue they share with one another, in the hope of finding the clues that help us understand what makes them tick.

But in underplaying their indecision and uncertainty, Bujalski weaves another theme throughout the film: the complex, uplifting, and even painful existence of the family bond. And it’s this element in particular that gives the film a more mature feeling. Where Bujalski’s previous characters were pretty much all single (a few were dating) and separate from their families, the centerpieces of Beeswax are related to one another. The film explores this connection quietly, but it’s ultimately what’s in view in Bujalski’s most affecting ending yet.

In the Q&A that followed the screening, the relatively small crowd energetically peppered Bujalski with questions about the film, his process, and the larger world of commercial movies. He answered in a thoughtful and reflective way, treating each question as if he hadn’t already heard it numerous times and in the process endearing himself to the crowd. A few highlights:

  • In answer to a question about what dictated his move to shoot his first three films in three different cities, Bujalski talked about the lead actors in each film as being his inspiration for writing, rather than any of the cities. None of the leads in his three films are professional actors, meaning that the films developed from personal relationships with people and the charisma that each of those actors carries naturally in life. That said, Bujalski noted that the character of each city (Boston, New York, and Austin) contributed to offer the final film a distinctive feel.
  • When asked about the meaning of his film’s title, Beeswax, he offered a witty rejoinder about the many different ways that Quentin Tarantino has dodged the question about his latest film, Inglorious Basterds. If Bujalski could have remembered any of those, he said, he would have used it then.
  • I asked what attracted him to nonprofessional actors, and he responded that often, professional actors have been trained to clarify when they perform. But Bujalski’s movies are about people who aren’t clear of their motives, their futures, or even their identities, so using a professional actor would be counter-intuitive in such a film. He also added that because the faces of nonprofessionals aren’t recognizable, there’s a bit more of a rooting interest on the part of the audience—one regular person connecting with another. The mask of celebrity is pulled out of the equation, thus allowing people to negotiate with the film itself, rather than with certain preconceived ideas about this actor or that.
  • When one woman commented on the abrupt ending, Bujalski offered a knowing smile. Clearly he had heard the question many times (I suspect for every one of his films). But he offered his thoughts on what he’s trying to do with those endings, not taking the film into some kind of resolution that’s unnecessary, but to end it when he senses it’s complete. [And let me just say, I am so glad he works this way.]

I’m thrilled that the people at the Angelika Theater in Dallas were able to organize the Q&A and get the film on the screen. I hope that they continue to make commitments to showing the films of significant contemporary filmmakers like Bujalski, Denis, Jia, and the Dardenne brothers. And thanks to Andrew Bujalski, who gave of his time to come out and talk to a group of strangers about something he’s put his heart and soul into. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to do, but he did it beautifully. I really love this film, and encourage you to track it down theatrically if you can. If not, look for it on DVD. It’s definitely worth your while.

5 thoughts on “Beeswax (2009)

  1. Thanks, Doug. It was great to finally meet Andrew, and I hope he’ll come back with his next film. I have to admit though, I’m still struggling of the fact that I could watch such a wonderful film, with the director in attendance, and there still only be about 20-25 people present. In a city this size–amazing.

  2. I know. But I wasn’t surprised, as I often think the Dallas film culture is often more interested in showiness or image more than artistry. Big stars get you a crowd.

    I only heard about it because I got an email from the theater two days prior to the event. So to even get there, I had to rearrange a couple of things on short notice and make the long drive to the theater.

    He appeared twice, on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon. Hopefully the Friday event was better attended.

  3. Well, this is why blogs like yours are becoming more vital to film culture (and culture in general) than the dying print world and traditional media venues. Good show.

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