Andrew Bujalski is a hidden treasure of American cinema. His gritty films acknowledge that cinema-as-usual isn’t life-as-usual. He strives toward creating an intricate cinematic reality, acknowledging that life-changing moments tend more towards starting a new job and less towards nuclear holocaust. Yet his films don't necessarily ruminate on the small moments that alter lives, like changing jobs, starting school, or leaving a significant other. They dwell instead on the anxiety and tension that lead up to these moments, the discussions and personal adjustments necessary to make these moments possible.
While Bujalski’s style is markedly different than most in America, Beeswax, his third film, is not that big of a leap from his previous features. Bujalski continues to cast non-actors and utilize semi-improvisational dialogue. And, while there is a bigger conflict at the heart of the film than previous features, it's still a film very much about the small moments, so seemingly real that the audience becomes a fly on the wall despite the grainy 16mm look.
Beeswax focuses on twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (Tilly and Maggie Hatcher). Jeannie, who has been in a wheelchair since her youth, co-owns a used clothing store in Austin, TX with her friend Amanda. Her sister Lauren, between jobs and boyfriends, is trapped in Austin by familial obligations. This is a problem exacerbated when Amanda -- who, in a Kurtzian fashion, looms over the film despite minimal screen presence -- indicates in an e-mail that she may take legal action against Jeannie in order to gain control of the store.
In any other director’s hands, the film's central conflicts would be front and center: Amanda and Jeannie would battle for the rights to the store in a dramatic courtroom scene; Lauren would pack up and move to Africa, where she has been accepted for a teaching job in the film; Merrill, Jeannie’s boyfriend, would montage his way through law school and a cram study session in preparation for the bar exam but barely make it to the test on time, only to find the disappointing results tacked to a corkboard in a sterile hallway.
These types of scenes have no home in a Bujalski film. The film is instead filled with characters who can’t seem to find what they are looking for. They may not even know what they are looking for. They just live life, like studying the wording of an e-mail trying to decode its meaning. They talk about what kind of sex they just had. They leave lovers for no other reason than boredom. They go to work and sell clothes. They mumble through conversations, with “ums” and “ahs” lingering as they try to figure out exactly what they want to say.
The characters have a pile of issues to deal with, and they all find ways to get into each other's business (thus, the title). There are no existential quests, no tiring discussions of characters trying to figure out “who they are.” Sure, the film still swings "mumblecore," but Beeswax shows that these films -- labeled so unfortunately -- are maturing and becoming much more than anyone expected them to be.