The Next Great American Independent Director

This stereotypical, kid-makes-a-bad-movie-starring-his-friends vibe makes it tough to get into the movie, but by the time the film ends, you’ll have a much better idea of how brilliant Bujalski is at making his actors (including himself, in an extremely self-deprecating role) appear natural.

 

As I write this, I’m 16 hours away from boarding a plane to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Many criticize Sundance for losing its focus of breaking great American independent films and directors, but that isn’t entirely valid, because thanks to Sundance, these indie films have been widely embraced, and by extension so has the festival. Examples that prove me wrong do exist, such as the inclusion of The Jacket and Dirty Love at last year’s festival (both of which are stupid, star-powered, faux-indie crap, similar to The Butterfly Effect a couple of years ago), but none proves me wrong so much as the festival’s ignorance of Andrew Bujawski, quite possibly the most promising independent writer/director working today. Hailed as the second coming of John Cassavetes, Bujalski has so far only made two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.

Funny Ha Ha seems the type of film to have only broken out and reached a wider audience through a successful screening at Sundance—but the film did not play at Sundance. Instead, it showed at the IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival in 2003, at which Bujalski won the Someone to Watch award. It petered around various festivals for a while; eventually, Wellspring bought the rights, giving the film an extremely limited theatrical run in early 2005 before releasing it on DVD last August.

Actually, watching Funny Ha Ha is also an interesting case, as it doesn’t immediately seem the type of movie to achieve a decent DVD release, much less win major awards and wind up on many important film critics’ Best of the Year lists. It was shot on 16mm film and lacks any kind of production values, and basically follows around aimless twentysomethings, similar to practically all independent films from young directors (i.e., Slacker, Clerks, etc.). This stereotypical, kid-makes-a-bad-movie-starring-his-friends vibe makes it tough to get into the movie, but by the time the film ends, you’ll have a much better idea of how brilliant Bujalski is at making his actors (including himself, in an extremely self-deprecating role) appear natural. Perhaps more importantly, this is an example of his talent at capturing basic human truths, the sorts of which are all but extinct in any film today, mainstream or independent. (The last time we saw this kind of thing was in films like All the Real Girls, Dazed and Confused, and Say Anything…) It’s an added bonus that Funny Ha Ha’s lead actress, Kate Dollenmayer (one of Bujalski’s old roommates), is charismatic enough to have already garnered a following of creepy Internet guys.

Mutual Appreciation has gotten even less initial notice, but it is arguably just as good. After premiering at SXSW last year, it has shown at just a couple of other festivals, yet no distributors have bit just yet. So, for the time being, one can go to mutualappreciation.com and order a DVD-R of the film from Bujalski himself for $15 (you simply PayPal his e-mail address and the package comes handwritten from “AB,” which is endearing in the way that independent filmmakers in the back of Fangoria have been for decades). Mutual utilizes many of the same actors as Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski and Dollenmayer are notable for their roles here), and a lot of the same rhythms as well. Instead of following a young girl from temp job to temp job—and party to party—it follows a young male musician trying to get gigs and, you know, party. Mutual Appreciation is shot in black and white, so it has more of a Shadows feel to it than Funny Ha Ha, but generally speaking, if you like one Bujalski film, you’ll like the other.

Of course, the savvier of the American independent film aficionados have known about Bujalski for a while now; Funny Ha Ha was completed in 2002, though I didn’t see it for the first time until about a month ago. It would be easy for people like me to blame not seeing it earlier on the fact that Sundance hadn’t programming it—but really, that’s awfully lazy. More importantly, the existence of these two films is indicative of a strain of new independent filmmaking that serves as an answer to the “big indies”—small studio films with big names attached to them, allowing stars to boost their credibility. Instead, they are films that are made by a small group of people for a small group of people, and do not seem to have delusions of “making it.” This unapologetic nature in refreshing, as are the films; you’ll be doing yourself a favor to look not just for these films, but for films like these.

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