Mutual Appreciation (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Andrew Bujalski
A plot description wouldn't do it justice. So here it is.
Alan Peoples (Justin Rice) has just watched his indie-pop band, the Bumblebees, fall apart. He journeys to New York, ostensibly to put together a new band, but also to visit his longtime friend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski). At first, he thinks, he only needs a drummer. He finds one, the brother of a local DJ (Seung-Min Lee) he's hesitantly dating. But he finds it easier to get along with Lawrence's girlfriend, Ellie (Rachel Clift), who's also attracted to him--but neither can do a thing about their "mutual apprecation," of which they're pretty uncertain in the first place.
Bujalski is the writer, director, and editor of this zero-budget film, which has one a few festival awards and was recently acclaimed by Film Comment, which led me to seeking it out. It's a sublime film. "Hesitantly" would be the key adjective in the above paragraph--there's a tentative attitude held by Alan, Lawrence, and Ellie, not just toward each other but toward everyone. Anxiety floods every moment, but they do their best to hide it. There are no giant emotional displays, nor are there any nebbish, cutesy comedy moments. Not a single frame of this film comes off as false. A couple of times you will suck in your breath and say, "Holy shit is that accurate." But although it's a film that thrives on making you uncomfortable--there are a zillion awkward pauses--I found that I had a grin frozen on my face for almost the entire time, because Bujalski affords the actors so many occasions to let the truth of what they're feeling accidentally slip out through their carefully guarded masks. Alan complains that he's been sending "signals" to his DJ girlfriend that he doesn't want a relationship and she's pressing on anyway, and we witness the moment first and read those signals loud and clear, but for the rest of the film we're left to find everyone's signals on our own. One of the most interesting is when Alan, quite drunk and looking to meet up with Ellie and Lawrence, wanders into a party at which they never arrived. He's left to introduce himself to three girls he's never met, all of whom are wearing wigs, and before long he's putting on a wig and being persuaded to wear eye shadow and a dress. He's trying to adapt socially to the bizarre situation (which is like something out of Martin Scorsese's "After Hours," although it still has the aura of authenticity)--but he knows he probably shouldn't let them apply makeup, and he certainly shouldn't put on the dress; it's a slow, horrifying humiliation that's also truly funny. Where that scene ends--the moment when Bujalski cuts--is just about perfect cinema.
You could complain that there's no plot, not really, and that the conflict is a bit tired, but that's not the point. Mutual Appreciation is about showing reactions and conversations and moments that you haven't seen before on film, and as much credit is due to the performers. I'm not sure how much improvising was involved in the picture, if any, but it all comes off like a documentary captured on Super-8. It has to be noted that the struggling-indie-rocker has never been depicted with such accuracy, as when Alan goes to play at Northsix in Brooklyn (a real club), and hardly anyone shows up except for a few of his friends. Watching the moments just before he begins performing, and how the crowd slowly gathers to the stage, but keeping a certain distance, as he begins, adheres so closely to the truth of the small-club scene that I was transfixed. I've never seen that in a movie before. Not to mention the awkward "trying to find a place to hang out and drink" that follows the concert, and the strange, spacey moments of hanging out with people you've never met before, trying to invent a brilliant conversation while getting drunk out of sheer nervousness. There's the bit where the drummer finds a way to score weed. Or when Lawrence is asked by a performance artist if he'd like to contribute to her show. Or when Ellie tells Lawrence the truth about what has passed between her and Alan.
The film is a little too long. There's an awkward phone conversation with Alan's father in which Bujalski seems to be desperately editing out the weaker moments of the father's performance, which leaves the scene feeling a little spotty. Perhaps too much it wears its Cassavetes influence on its sleeve (I've often heard directors list Cassavetes as an influence, but here is clearly a director who idolizes him). But most of all this is a film that radiates warmth and humanity, and it's a real joy. Netflix this now.