Whether he likes it or not — and we’re talking about a director whose characters feel so much ambivalence that you can practically see it radiating off of them in waves — Andrew Bujalski has become the patron saint of the burgeoning grassroots indie movement misleadingly known as mumblecore. (The people in these films may not know for sure what they want, but they articulate their rococo indecision loud and clear.) To be honest, it’s a movement I’ve mostly resisted thus far, if only because movies are among my few avenues of escape from dithering white postgrads. But while Bujalski’s first two features, “Funny Ha Ha” (2002) and “Mutual Appreciation” (2005), too frequently come across as less than the sum of their circumlocutions, his latest effort, “Beeswax,” represents an encouraging leap forward. For the first time, he’s placed his hapless folk within a recognizable real-world milieu — one in which people have difficulties more pressing than how to extricate themselves from some goofy-ass house party.
Which is not to say that Bujalski has suddenly developed an interest in plot. But while “Beeswax” is as structurally shapeless and deliberately unresolved as his previous work, it does feature a tad more of a scenario than usual, however carefully obscured and downplayed. Real-life twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher play fictional twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren, who share an apartment in Austin, Texas. Jeannie runs a vintage clothing/bric-a-brac shop, but is concerned that she’s about to be sued by not-so-silent partner Amanda (Anne Dodge), as the two have radically different ideas about how the business should be marketed. Consequently, she’s gotten back in touch with ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), who’s gearing up to take the bar exam and clearly wouldn’t mind mixing business with pleasure. Meanwhile, Lauren must decide whether to take a teaching position in Kenya, as accepting the job would require that she fly to Africa immediately, potentially leaving her sister without a support system. (Jeannie also happens to be paraplegic — a fact I mention in passing because that’s how the film treats it.)
None of these crises — and they genuinely do qualify as crises within a Bujalskian context — gets more than a cursory dramatic workout; the film’s ending is typically abrupt and unexpected. What interests Bujalski are the ways in which the social contracts we unconsciously draft and sign with friends, family and lovers reflect and mimic the formal contracts of the employment world. (The film’s title cleverly alludes to this conflation of the personal and the corporate: “None of your beeswax” = “None of your business.”) Jeannie and Lauren’s mother’s girlfriend (Janet Pierson) offers to buy out Amanda’s interest in the shop, but Lauren doesn’t even bother to relay the offer to Jeannie, presumably because there’s some sense that bounds have been overstepped. And while Jeannie and Merrill do fall back into bed, they continue to playfully fight about the precise status of their relationship, with Jeannie at one point repeatedly shouting (over their mutual laughter) “You’re not my boyfriend! You’re not my boyfriend!” On the flip side, when Jeannie and Amanda finally sit down to talk about how best to dissolve their partnership, the conversation sounds eerily like every break-up you’ve ever experienced.
In its rambling, lackadaisical way, “Beeswax” represents the down-market version of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” examining the commodification of relationships among those of us for whom money is in fact an object. More than that, though, the injection of commerce, even on this tiny scale, makes Bujalski’s wryly comic take on the hazards of modern communication seem considerably tougher and less insular than it has in the past. A series of sub-incidents — “subplot” would imply that the film has a main plot — involving new hire Corinne (Katy O’Connor), for example, yield some terrific scenes that show how Jeannie’s natural empathy suddenly vanishes when she puts on her boss hat. But I was every bit as enthralled by an apparently random moment in which an earnest conversation among Jeannie, Lauren and Merrill gets interrupted by Corinne calling from the store to report that the cash register is broken and must receive instructions on how to sell items by hand. Bits of literal “business” such as that feel rather like the workaday world intruding on a long solipsistic vacation. I don’t want to say that Bujalski has matured, but at the very least he’s now stepped outside.