‘Beeswax’: open for business
Andrew Bujalski is heading south. His first film, “Funny Ha Ha’’ (2002), was set in his hometown of Boston; 2005’s “Mutual Appreciation’’ started here but ended up down the highway in New York City. “Beeswax,’’ Bujalski’s latest slice of 20-something anomie, tumbles off the map into Austin, Texas. It’s his sharpest, most observant piece of work yet, though. Sometimes you have to leave home to find yourself.
The main characters are twin sisters, Jeannie and Lauren, played by Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. Biologically identical, they couldn’t be more different in temperament and circumstance. Jeannie manages a small clothing boutique that she co-owns with a troublesome business partner (Anne Dodge); Lauren doesn’t seem to do much of anything. Jeannie is always looking for the next problem to focus on; Lauren breezes through life, assuming other people will fix her problems. Jeannie’s in a wheelchair. Lauren’s not.
It’s never explained what happened; “Beeswax’’ presents Jeannie’s paraplegia as a fact of her existence, and neither she nor the movie are interested in sentiment. Is the wheelchair the reason she’s the ant and her sister’s the grasshopper? To wonder is to be concerned about the past, and Bujalski makes films that live in the present.
His characters usually have to come to grips with their futures, though, and “Beeswax’’ is no different. What is new is that where the earlier movies focused on individual lost souls trying to get it together (or not), this film splits the difference and finds the hardheaded Jeannie the more interesting person.
If you’ve seen “Funny Ha Ha’’ or “Mutual Appreciation,’’ you know that nothing really “happens’’ in a Bujalski movie. The drama (if you can even call it that) is in watching aimless young characters take stock of their lives against their own ingrained tendency to slack. Jeannie has to decide what to do about her partner, who may or may not want to sue; her alt- trendy dolt of a shop clerk (Katy O’Connor); and Merrill (Alex Karpovsky, himself a filmmaker), the charmingly pushy law student who insists she needs a boyfriend.
Lauren mostly has to decide who she’s going to party with tonight. A chance to teach children in Africa turns up as a late-inning option only because she knows you’re supposed to want to do something with your life. (Even then, she’s keeping an eye on the exits.) The title of “Beeswax’’ evokes the phrase “none of your beeswax,’’ which means “none of your business,’’ and the film is really about business - about running one, about sticking your nose in other people’s, about where one person’s business needs to become another’s.
Not that either sister “learns lessons’’ in the manner of your average narrative feature film. Jeannie accrues a little knowledge, though, and confidence and even love, and on the filmmaker’s terms, that’s epic. At the end, one sister is a changed person and one sister’s the same, and what exactly makes that happen? Nature or nurture? Personality or events? Bujalski doesn’t pretend to have an answer, but the question fuels his filmmaking.
Sometimes you have to squint to see it. The low-fi hallmarks of the “mumblecore’’ anti-movement of which this director is a charter member and sort-of figurehead are present and accounted for: hyper-naturalistic acting, no soundtrack music, fly-on-the-wall camerawork. It all feels studiously artless - some people huffily insist that Bujalski’s movies aren’t movies at all - but the more you contemplate his landscapes, the more his control over their various elements is revealed. He’s the real deal: a maturing artist obsessed with how and why - and if - his generation will mature.