Among the many weirdly engaging scenes in Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation is this: a twentysomething named Sara is at the apartment of a music industry A&R guy when she buries her nose in one of his coffee-table books and takes a good, deep whiff.
Sara hands the book to her host. "You've got to smell this book," she says, almost giddy. "It's so evocative. It reminds me of elementary school."
That inane exchange -- smacking of self-conscious eclecticism and nostalgia for a period of not so very long ago -- encapsulates the mindset of the angsty youths who populate this sly and modestly seductive film. Written and directed by Bujalski, whose 2002 Funny Ha Ha earned critical raves but few viewers, Mutual Appreciation is steadfastly low-budget -- shot in 16mm black and white, and with a loose, seemingly improvisational style that hearkens to French New Wave and John Cassavetes. But Mutual Appreciation is no throwback. It is deeply ingrained in the bohemian subculture of Generation Y.
The plot is threadbare. Alan (Justin Rice), newly arrived in New York City after the breakup of his indie-rock band, hunts for a new drummer when he isn't hanging out with longtime buddy Lawrence (Bujalski) and Lawrence's girlfriend, Ellie (Rachel Clift). There is an unspoken mutual attraction between Alan and Ellie, but Lawrence is too passive to say anything. Meanwhile, Alan hooks up with Sara (Seung-Min Lee), a pretty college-radio DJ who subsequently introduces Alan to her brother (Kevin Micka), a drummer who adheres to Alan's directive that "the emphasis is not on super-cool drumming."
That's it. But like Richard Linklater's Slacker -- a picture that shares Mutual Appreciation's off-kilter sense of humor -- the meat of the film is nestled in the spaces between plot points.
"You're thinking too hard," Ellie tells the maddeningly self-conscious Alan after he hedges on one of the many straightforward queries he seems incapable of answering without repeating the question. Ellie's right; Alan does think too hard -- but, then again, so do all three of the principal characters. Educated and self-absorbed, they constantly modify their language and analyze their actions, thinking themselves into a solipsistic stupor.
The orbit of introspection easily lends itself to satirical jabs. Still, while the film has its share of amusing moments (especially its often-circuitous dialogue), Bujalski has too much affection for these characters, narcissistic warts and all, to be needlessly cruel.
And these kids deserve the sympathy. After all, as Mutual Appreciation makes clear, affecting an appearance of non-affectation can be exhausting work.
Shot on grainy black and white 16mm and presented in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Mutual Appreciation is proudly bargain-basement cinema. There is slight combing and noise, but no matter; the low-budget vibe is dead-on.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is perfectly fine for the dialogue-driven movie, with no discernible distortion or drop-off.
Kudos to one of the most inspired commentary tracks this reviewer has ever come across, as the DVD features "interjections and observations from parents of cast and crew." The remarks are candid, surprisingly insightful and often hilarious. You've got to admire the cojones of a filmmaker willing to let the parents of one cast member carp that "I don't think there's good plot and good story ... It (the movie) just shows daily life." I have one complaint, though; with a few exceptions, it's nearly impossible to connect the parents to their corresponding cast or crew member.
Far less successful is Peoples House (8:15), a color short that revives two characters from Mutual Appreciation. For diehard fans only. Other extras include a theatrical trailer, an alternate trailer and alternate posters galore that can be accessed on a DVD-ROM drive.
Bujalski's low-budget about modern-day urban bohemians is certainly not for all tastes. It's rough around the edges, virtually plotless and, yes, occasionally tedious. Nevertheless, fans of indie cinema are likely to be charmed by this quirky, but authentic, slice of life. Or, as one of its characters might put it, Mutual Appreciation has a "wonderful, symbiotic anti-chemistry."