There’s a scene in Andrew Bujalski’s second film, Mutual Appreciation that captures the complex crackle and shame of desire better than any other film I’ve seen this decade. Alan (Justin Rice) is sitting next to Ellie (Rachel Clift) on their bed. She’s in a long-term relationship with his best friend (played by the writer/director himself). They torturously circumnavigate the subject of their mutual affection, and in a heart-stoppingly bold move, he picks up her hand, and holds it.
That’s as melodramatic as it gets in Bujalski’s world, where a small cast of twenty-something college graduates drink and talk and curse themselves for being too forward or not forward enough, longing to make some sort of deeper connection. The 32-year-old writer/director/editor/star has been feted by the press and strewn with awards for his lo-fi slices of real life that capture the angst and possibility of being young, over-educated and unemployed. The phrase ‘voice of a generation’ has been thrown his way, notably by the New York Times, but he brushes off the notion with his characteristic wariness of oversimplifying a complicated story.
“It’s just kinda journalistic hyperbole,” he tells me over a crackly phone line. Having just finished spring semester as a film lecturer in Boston, he’s mid-way through a long drive to Austin, Texas, where he’ll be shooting his third film this summer. The project’s still shrouded in secrecy, but Bujalski confirms it will be “in the same methodological vein” as his past two features – “cheap, with a small crew and non-professional actors. I think it’s only going to get more and more difficult for me to do that in the future so I’m going to try and squeeze one out now, while I’m still young-ish,” he says.
The awkward stop-and-start dialogue, lo-fi filming techniques and gently meandering plots of Bujalski’s films have led critics to assume that they are just thrown together: improvised and autobiographical. But the opposite is the case. “To make the movies as direct as possible,” he explains, “there’s very little in the way of stylistic flourishes. I think that invites people to assume that I just kinda wrote down what happened to me one morning and put it in a movie, and that’s not really true. You take those feelings and then you build something out of them. I write as specific a script as I know how to, and I try to write as much toward what I think are natural rhythms as I can, so I put all the pauses in, and all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and all that.”
The result, in the case of Mutual Appreciation, is an intimate portrait of a group of friends – people you could imagine rubbing shoulders with at a gig, or queuing behind at a café – trying to work out what life has to offer them.
When I ask Bujalski about inspiration he’s evasive, talking about how he reads his own press too much and is sick of being compared to the same filmmakers over and over. “I’m sure I’ve stolen a lot from them… but by the same token you can’t help but feel that’s a little reductive after you’ve read it a hundred times. You’d like to think that that you’re still doing something new.” He thinks again, and approaches the thought from a new angle, as his characters frequently do – edging around a thought rather than ploughing straight through it.
“So there’s all those, maybe obvious influences, but then I think you take things from everywhere… You know, probably the movie I think I’ve been talking about the most, incessantly for the last few months, is the new Rocky movie. Which I was crazy about, but I can’t imagine that… I have yet to be compared to Stallone.”