Mutual Misunderstanding in ‘Mutual Appreciation’ (2005)

Ah, those halcyon days of mumblecore! They began with the noughties and died with them too. It may seem a curious moment in time to eulogise, but there is something about that decade which had a distinctly low-key charm. Nobody possesses the power to escape the cultural touchstones of their childhood, so ‘Noughties nostalgia’ must unfortunately exist for some (author included). Yes, despite the unpleasantly knowing air of irony surrounding it, queues do indeed snake towards specialist club nights tailored towards remembering our dearly departed Flo Rida and Gotye. And if you had remained delightfully ignorant of the ongoing influence of the Noughties, chances are a recent lockdown-induced reactivation of a lingering Skype account has put an end to that reprieve.

Rehabilitate the Noughties, for mumblecore ranks among the decade’s most admirable products – if not, admittedly, one of its most ubiquitous. Naturally, all the usual dull qualifications surround any talk of the genre as a whole: key figures have claimed, ‘It was never a unified movement,’ while the name itself was intended in jest. Yet there is something true and immediately identifiable in a member of the mumblecore family tree. Spot shoestring budgets that can afford only cloying indie for a soundtrack. Observe a bunch of unknowns portraying lost twenty-somethings chatting to each other often quite aimlessly. If what unfolds essentially resembles an extended cut of deleted scenes, then it could well be mumblecore.

When Hollywood comes a-calling, this DIY ethos dies a fair and natural death. The ‘Introduction to Mumblecore’ class surely has got more takers thanks to Greta Gerwig, whose early roots in filmmaking aligned with the genre’s characteristically slight romantic fumblings. Times change; Gerwig evidently found that adapting Louisa May Alcott calls for a little more enunciation. Even the grand precentor of mumblecore, Andrew Bujalski, has drifted into scripts for those modern epics of intricate storytelling, Disney live-action remakes.

Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (2005) is the mumbler’s mumblecore film. It ticks all the boxes: it’s a film about being young, a bit lost, and totally incapable of channelling your frustrations in an articulate way. The cropped, shaky frame and the unfussy monochrome make it look less like watching an independent film, more like intruding on someone’s home movie. That’s the lazy charisma of Mutual Appreciation: it feels achingly, pathetically, real.

Even Groot is more adept than Alan at conveying his own feelings

Behind the façade of attenuate dialogue in Mutual Appreciation lurks a portrait of the perfectly human art of miscommunication. Aspiring indie songwriter Alan (Justin Rice) is our protagonist, and even Groot is more adept at conveying his own feelings. Alan plods around Brooklyn, shrugging his shoulders and scooping his shaggy mop through a succession of cramped bedrooms and half-empty music venues. He is sporadically chatty when handed a beer, and his songs are evidently filled with various knots of fancy loaded phrases that aren’t worth deciphering (Christopher Ricks is hardly going to devote a book to Alan’s songs). But place him in that familiar conversational bullring where the right thing is always the hardest to do, slouched opposite another human being whose reaction he cannot predict nor control, and Alan freezes up. Who is Alan? Alan is just about everyone.

Image courtesy of Arbelos

Alan isn’t alone. Mutual Appreciation portrays a milieu of meandering young people whose burgeoning relationship with adulthood is a little rocky. Chief among these is Ellie (Rachel Clift), the best friend’s girl whom Alan knows he cannot dare poach off his old school pal Lawrence (Bujalski himself). One singularly painful, yet touching, scene features Ellie and Alan writhing around on a bed next to each other. Both are fully clothed, hopeful that the other may harbour feelings for them, and on the cusp of throwing caution to the wind and blurting out a nervous truth. A spasm of awkward tension – and no release. Both know they cannot betray Lawrence, so continue to wriggle around in the bedsheets, keeping their mouths shut.

Plenty of more painstaking scripts would revel in delivering a passionate third-act confession of infatuation, a standard rom-com trope that zoomers appear to be luring their friends into amidst the current crisis. Shoot your shot, meme or otherwise, has evolved into something of a call to arms to those worrying of emerging Kaspar Hauser-like out of their isolation caves without a teenage crush there to greet them. The end times are here and with them your last chance to declare undying devotion and procure someone to cuddle up with while watching rolling news feeds of martial law and such. Mutual Appreciation delicately suggests that this Hallmark Channel mindset is wishful thinking; Bujalski’s script stands out for what the characters don’t say, as much as for what they do. Nobody rings a doorbell on Christmas Eve, or clambers over a terminal gate. Little pockets of miscommunication and misunderstanding make themselves known throughout every interaction.

“You look like early ‘70s Bowie,” is precisely the sort of incongruity you would recall having been barked at you circa 3am.

Despite this refreshing – yet hardly escapist – reality check, Mutual Appreciation is not a film about regret, or even resignation. There is a latent satisfaction that contrasts with Bujalski’s preceding film, 2002’s Funny Ha Ha, where the director’s own character receives a spontaneous epiphany regarding his own mortality and starts smashing bottles for the hell of it. Our Alan is instead a laidback yet engaged presence, perpetually hanging out in that quiet, liminal space between happy and sad, an especially rare place for a music enthusiast and wannabe Dylan. Alan has none of the seething frustration of a tortured artist like Llewyn Davis, nor the metropolitan bombast of a cultural snob à la High Fidelity. But this doesn’t prevent him from occasionally blowing off steam by insisting that some poor expectant drummer doesn’t stray into fancy fills and frills.

Of all the muddled encounters on Alan’s ramble through Mutual Appreciation, the most perplexing, and uncanny, takes place inevitably at a house party. Heavily inebriated and coasting on a post-gig high, Alan stumbles into a friend of a friend’s apartment, only to realise too late that whatever carousing there may have taken place earlier is now well and truly dead. Faced with a clique of drawling girls disinterestedly playing a game beyond his comprehension, Alan does what anyone would do: sip uncomfortably at a complimentary can of Bud Light and then allow his bored hosts to coat him in mascara and compel him to squeeze into a dress. What could be played as a hazy booze-fuelled ritual of midnight vaudeville is instead the kind of weird morning-after tale tentatively related once the headache wears off. “You look like early ‘70s Bowie,” is precisely the sort of incongruity you would recall having been barked at you circa 3am.

Mutual Appreciation is just part of a story. It doesn’t know where its characters will end up, but then neither do the characters. Bujalski’s style defies that old English teacher drone of, ‘Do not treat the characters as if they are real people.’ In Mutual Appreciation, of course they are real people. They don’t understand each other’s inner feelings, nor are they capable of meaningfully addressing their own. Conversations are replete with diplomatic skirting round delicate subjects. The protagonist is not an unjustly maligned poet for his generation – he’s an average guy with average original material (apologies, Bishop Allen – Justin Rice’s real-life band). Mutual Appreciation offers a raw representation of human inefficacy in social interaction, and then places a warm pat on the shoulder telling you this is all okay. O how we are all itching to once again be let loose into the throng of conversation, real-physical-outdoors-world-style.

Header image courtesy of Arbelos