Jun 23, 2009

BAMCinemafest: ******core grows the fuck up, sort of - On You Won't Miss Me & Beeswax

First off, a confession.

I’ve had an unshakable antipathy toward a certain species of low budget American cinema, one whose name shall not be uttered, for some time now. Regardless of the context in which it was made, I try to give every filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. After all, I’m a filmmaker myself. Objectivity, if such a thing exists, is one of the central tenants to any respectable critic’s philosophy. Yet, when it comes to much of what finds film festival screens in America these days, I’m clearly biased. I can’t help it. When I see films that were obviously financed by wealthy families for their debutante children, nieces and nephews, a feeling that isn’t exactly envy, but probably belongs in the same universe of emotions, tends to wash over me. This probably wouldn’t be the case if the films themselves were of much merit. Yet most often, regardless of weather I was aligned against them from the start, they aren’t.

Thinking back on the last few years, I can’t trace back my feelings on the matter to the precise moment when this particular emotional malignancy began. Perhaps what I often feel isn’t that different than any other ambitious middle class kid who went to film school with the wealthy and the super wealthy (or any other film producer who struggles to get by while others pay for insurance, overhead and development with their trust funds). Even if the film was paid for on credit cards for less than the price of a used car, I still find the self-absorption and aesthetic laziness of most Generation DIY cinema to be indicative of our generation’s lack of engagement and intellectual bankruptcy. There’s something distinctly Bush era about mumblecore (there, I said it) and the narcissistic, reductive, unengaged worldview that these films generally contain. Micro indies about comfortable yet jobless or marginally employed Caucasian-American young adults looking for love, at least the ones produced in droves during much of this decade, never made much of an impression with me, I’m sorry. Why make a movie if you have nothing to say?

This being the case, I’m very happy to report that two of the most promising figures to arise from these ranks have new films that are making their New York premiere during the inaugural BAMcinemafest which show growth for the individual filmmakers and the cycle as a whole. Both films are giant leaps forward for their progenitors, who surely have yet to reach the height of their powers. Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me and Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax both center on young women (in Beeswax’s case, a pair) and feature, in their very different ways, remarkably empathetic portraits of individuals trying to make their way in the world and come to terms with their own vices and limitations.

In Beeswax, Bujalski focuses on a pair of twin sisters (Meg and Tilly Hatcher), one of whom is crippled and co-owns a thrift shop that she feels she has too much responsibility for, the other an attractive post-collegiate freelancer who’s just broken up with an older man and is drifting toward various opportunities. Bujalski uses color expressively at times, but generally he has refined his rough hewn, Eric Rohmer gone all DIY aesthetic only slightly; what makes Beeswax special are elements that have already been strong in his previous films getting even better. His casting is perfect and his ear for contemporary post collegiate vernacular among the pale is without par.

He gets a performance out of fellow filmmaker Alex Karpovsky (who was much less funny in Bob Byington’s nearly unwatchable Harmony and Me), playing the dual romantic foil for the two sisters, which is worthy of vintage Albert Brooks. The Hatcher sisters are incredibly warm and appealing screen personas. The dynamics that exist between them are often unpredictable, never malicious and always fun to watch. Beeswax is ultimately about the ways in which adulthood forces us to reconcile our own desires with those of others, subject matter that’s hinted at in Bujalski’s first couple of films, but given a fully textured rendering here. He delivers plenty of trademark awkward laughs that hinge on his performers lack of verbal dexterity, but also suggests, without being mawkish and without losing his cool, legitimate depth of feeling for the first time.

You Won’t Miss Me, shot on multiple formats and featuring a fascinating and visceral performance by Stella Schnabel, is the second feature from Ry Russo-Young. It’s an altogether more impressive movie than her debut feature Orphans and shows that she has the potential to grow into a terrific stylist. Schnabel’s Shelly Brown is a woman that one imagines isn’t that much different than Schnabel herself: privileged child of a successful artist, strong willed, libidinous, neurotic and altogether irrepressible. In short, she’s a spoiled terror.

When we meet her, she has checked into some sort of institution, where she’s told by an offscreen evaluator/psychiatrist that although she’s out of control, she has no business in a place like this. These scenes, which the film revisits frequently, anchor it to some plausible concern about where Shelly’s hijinks might land her. Playing out across the gamut of low budget film and video formats, the rest of the film proceeds to revisit moments from Shelly’s recent past. She brings a few boys home to her mother’s empty west village haunt, hangs out in Williamsburg with a crusty looking friend/occasional romantic partner, takes an ill advised trip with a equally challenging friend to be groupies for a rock band performing in Atlantic City and goes on a few a series of progressively more volatile auditions. As all of this unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Shelly is dubious about her abilities, but never her awareness. She is looking desperately for affection in the wrong places, but despite her sheltered naivete, this very watchable young woman has an innate toughness that’s not an affectation.

Yet, mixed in with all the non-narrative cinematic poetry the film makes much hay from (props to ace DP Kitao Sakurai, he’s one to watch), Russo-Young also pushes Schnabel to make Shelly just annoying, bratty and clueless enough as to leave any discerning audience member wondering if they would miss Shelly. I certainly won’t; she’s the type of exhaustingly self-absorbed hipster girl you might just cross the street to avoid, but I’ll never forget her either.