(Beeswax is now available on DVD through Cinema Guild. It opened theatrically at the Film Forum on Friday, August 7th, 2009. Visit the film’s official website to learn more. NOTE: This review was first published on August 7, 2009.)
In a recent interview in The Believer, John Sayles described John Cassavetes as “the poet of inarticulate people. What the characters are trying to say is oftentimes very simple, but they’re really bad at saying it.” Andrew Bujalski, he of the muffled 16mm talkies, has been consistently compared to Cassavetes by critics unable to pinpoint his exact brand of cinema. This association has its merits, but to my mind Bujalski has taken his predecessor’s agenda in a subtly different direction, by becoming the poet of inarticulate people who honestly believe themselves to be articulate.
Bujalski’s first films were anxious character studies of youth in transition. Funny Ha Ha—a spotty, spliced, handmade look at Marnie, a recent college grad with a dead end job and a dubious crush on an unavailable target. Her breathless, cerebral charm does little to mask the fact that she is floundering. Next came Mutual Appreciation, a more visually formal (black-and-white) portrait of Alan—a sloe-eyed musician in the process of relocating to the city that never sleeps. Indeed, Alan’s nonchalance runs counter to the spirit of his new home and New York tries its best to force a mighty struggle out of him. Desperate attempts to cling to the leg of time (it just keeps marching on) were the subject of Bujalski’s first works, and we watched his characters get dragged across the dirty ground in the process, somewhere at the nexus of sad and funny.
But Bujalski’s new film, Beeswax, is about something different. For starters, it has two female leads. Jeannie and Lauren are sisters, twins, incredibly connected yet decidedly distinct. They share a colorful house in Austin, Texas. The Slacker capital, although ironically this is Bujalski’s first film that doesn’t focus on a willful underachiever. Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) is recently single and experiencing one of the many mini-fluxes that characterize adult life without a steady partner or a steady job. Unsure about her next movie, she is seriously considering a change of career that would take her to Africa. Meanwhile Jeannie (Maggie’s real life twin Tilly) is preparing herself for a legal battle with the co-owner of Storyville, her whimsically appointed vintage clothing store. What had begun as a fruitful partnership has turned ugly, and Jeannie moves around her own shop suspiciously, looking for hints of a potential coup. When she calls in her soon-to-be lawyer ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) for backup, their romantic past tries to remake itself as a romantic present. The elegantly handled elephant in the room is that Jeannie is a paraplegic, the fact of which is never directly acknowledged even as it creates a fascinating language of dependence and independence between the sisters.
If Bujalski’s first two films were focused on characters staring into the precipice of adulthood (a metaphor that Garden State made all too literal), then the denizens of Beeswax are inside the sinkhole staring back. As Bujalski’s budgets get bigger, his characters’ stakes get higher. The sisters have established professional lives and understand the true terror these obligations can bring (you have to show up? Every day?). While the bonds of blood are essentially unbreakable, the professional relationships we form are terrifyingly tenuous—and Bujalski has created an entire character to embody the walking-on-eggshells fear a work environment inspires. Corinne Meltzer (Katy O’Conner) is Jeannie’s employee, deliciously ditzy and constantly on edge. Her nervous and oddly chipper hostility brings to mind some of the great TV secretaries of the past and reminds us all why self-employment is ideal.
Bujalski has, perhaps somewhat facetiously, described Beeswax as a legal thriller. Indeed the plot, however small in scope, surprises us with its tight construction. Clues are planted, so casual they seem like remnants of an improv session, but they later prove essential to our understanding of the situation in Jeannie’s store (and in her sister’s unmoored headspace.) It’s no Pelican Brief, but Beeswax does use the conventions of litigation-tinged mystery to frame an altogether more personal story. In Q&A’s, Bujalski is often asked whether or not his work is scripted. The sneaky/steady build of this surprisingly plot-driven film should give us our answer.
— Lena Dunham