Beeswax is the acclaimed third feature by Andrew Bujalski, one of the key figures of the so-called “Mumblecore” movement of micro-budget filmmaking, one of the defining trends of recent American indie film. Picked by the New York Times as one of the top films of 2009, Beeswax was hailed by Times critic A.O. Scott as a “remarkably subtle, even elegant movie. Its leisurely scenes and hesitant, circling conversations conceal both an ingenious comic structure and a rich emotional subtext.”
The art and mystery of conversation is in fact a prevailing theme in Beeswax, as it subtly determines the shifting social relationships hovering around two sisters (played by real-life siblings Tilly and Maggie Hatcher), one of whom struggles to run a boutique with a difficult employee and an absent business partner. It’s a modest society, but it buzzes with moments that ring true to life.
In the garrulous spirit of Bujalski’s film, two Keyframe regulars, Dan Callahan and Vadim Rizov, convened to converse their way through the film’s many pleasures.
Dan Callahan: What I love about Beeswax is that the characters don’t glamorize themselves in any way. I think that some audiences are resistant to Bujalski’s style because we’re used to people in movies being more outsized, more particular, more decisive. But Beeswax is definitely a step up from Bujalski’s shyer second feature Mutual Appreciation, where the characters were so passive that I sometimes wondered what sub-species of humankind they belonged to. In contrast to that film’s muted black-and-white, Beeswax revels in a pastel color scheme, and the people in it are far more assertive, far more recognizable to me. There’s a Henry James-ian kind of feeling to a lot of Beeswax, where so much of it is characters doing a sort of elevated gossiping about each other.
Vadim Rizov: Speaking of recognizable, as someone raised in Austin, where Beeswax is set, I spent my third viewing of the film with a friend who also grew up there. Our goal was to figure out where everything was located, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult (there’s only one street intersection shown). What we extrapolated, briefly: the Storyville Boutique run by Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is a real place, though since the film was shot (2008 or so), it’s moved to a slightly more upscale area. Austin’s developing fast: the movie’s already a time capsule. That’s especially true in the demographic info it incidentally captures. Jeannie’s new employee Corinne (Katy O’Connor) has apparently just moved to Austin from Portland, two cities that see a lot of traffic back and forth. She’s also more politically radicalized than most people in the area, which may be something she brought with her from the Left Coast.
Hometown trivia aside, this is Bujalski’s most overtly structured movie. Compared to the previous films—whose protagonists are underemployed and aimless youth— we’re looking at a business owner, her trilingual teacher sister, and a law student. These people are definitely adults, with a new set of adult problems coming at them: business, career, relationships, with commitment being the common denominator.
Not that they don’t try to avoid these hardships, and the brilliance of Bujalski is that he patterns the film after his characters’ conflict-averse behavior. He’ll take an awkward comic punchline or potentially explosive moment and cut evasively to the next scene. But as in life, you can only get away with this so long before it catches up with you, and so he lets the final, long-in-coming face-off between Jeannie and her estranged partner Amanda (Anne Dodge) play out in full.
Callahan: Do you think that Jeannie is actually good at running her business and her partner Amanda is just a dilettante? Amanda hired Corinne, who strikes me as a nightmare employee. I think that it’s the tone of Corinne’s voice that slays me. It’s the tone of someone both ditzy and entitled, a maddening combination. And when she has her meltdown at the end of her shift and retreats to the backroom to weep, or hyper-ventilate, it feels like exactly the sort of “privacy please!” drama queen antics I expected from this girl the minute she walked in the shop.
Jeannie has it in for her mainly because Amanda hired her, but Corinne herself has to take some of the blame. She’s not a nightmare employee because she’s bad at her job. She’s a nightmare because her personality is so mildly obnoxious that there’s no way to fight her or get rid of her. You’re just stuck with her.
Rizov: Oh, Corinne. Here’s the thing about employees like her: I’m not convinced Jeannie could find someone better. The pay’s low, the work’s un-enticing, the other employee also seems to have his own particular problems and when Corinne isn’t getting on her social-privilege/activist high horse, she basically does what Jeannie needs her to do. And I think you’re right: you’re stuck with her, just like Jeannie is stuck with everyone around her, for better or worse.
But I don’t think Corinne is that much of a nightmare employee: she’s good on the phone, prompt about handling a register crisis without alienating the customer, and more or less able to turn off her activist-minded hectoring when on the job.
The question about the clash between Jeannie and Amanda is a trickier one. Clearly both have competing visions of how a store works: Jeannie’s a day-to-day manager focused on small victories, while Amanda seems to connect her ownership of a pointedly quirky boutique with an obscure form of social currency. Together they offer two contrasting models for what educated, laid back urbanites do with their cultural capital upon exiting their late twenties. I’m more sympathetic to Jeannie’s view, if only because it’s much less grandiose: she doesn’t want wine receptions or recognition, just a steady income.
Callahan: The strongest scenes in Beeswax are the passive aggressive battles between Jeannie and Corinne, where two particular personalities try to work together and wind up jabbing at each other; again, this feels very Jamesian, this sense of people being isolated and wondering about others, and then clashing fairly violently at rare intervals. I love a moment toward the end of a quietly seething argument scene where Corinne tells Jeannie that she’s going to a gay marriage rally. Corinne finally says, “I could get hit by a bus,” and you hear the sound of a skidding car on the soundtrack. It’s something that could be easily missed, and it’s slyly pleasurable.
There are also a lot of verbal throwaways like that. The morning after sleeping with her ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), Jeannie tells him that the sex was “scorching,” a perfect example of the verbal methods in this movie. The sex was probably very good, maybe even great, but she feels the need to undercut it by using a silly word to describe its greatness. (Tramadol) Deep emotion here needs to be deflected, generally, and words are the best tools for that.
And then, much later on, her sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) repeats the word “scorching” in conversation with Jeannie and Merrill, so that you wonder if Jeannie told Lauren about using that word to describe the sex, or if this is just a word the sisters use together. Again, this is an easily missed point, which is why this is a film that rewards re-viewings (I’ve seen it twice now).
Rizov: The extremely coded ways that people do and don’t speak to each other is exactly what Bujalski is picking apart. He’s so focused on deciphering the language of his characters that some critics think it’s a celebration of verbal passivity and call him out on that. But the behavior of these characters is far from admirable. The dynamics of the central trio’s friendship sustain them, but Jeannie, Merrill and Lauren end the film just as trapped as when they started. This is a familiar dynamic: in all three of Bujalski’s films, closed friend groups convince themselves things are looking up when they’re going nowhere.
It’s telling that on her last night in town, Lauren apparently can’t find anyone to hang out with her: this is community as stasis and inertia, links that have time but not necessarily a whole lot of meaning. That’s Austin. In many ways, Beeswax seems spiritually closer to Whit Stillman than Bujalski’s previous work. He’s one of the few people interested in the unspoken conversational rules of a closed, basically privileged world.
And that’s where I think Bujalski is going: he’s been slaving away in his films at figuring out what a contemporary comedy of manners/rhetoric might look like, and as his characters age (roughly, I can’t help but notice, at the same rate as Bujalski), they’re only going to get more assertive. Every film is less rife in social awkwardness than the one before (his debut Funny Ha Ha makes me wince more than most horror movies), and I expect his films to get more confident. I also wonder if and when he’ll abandon 16mm and go digital, which he’s been making noises about.
Bujalski hasn’t let me down for three movies; as long as he keeps applying that unsparing (but not unkind) gaze to the foibles of people lucky enough to have post-grad malaise as their biggest problem, I’ll be happy.