At once passive-aggressive, self-absorbed and sweetly charming, the hero of Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation is a prime specimen of a particular subspecies of 21st-century twentysomething dude. You'll see his kind clutching a bottle of Labatt 50 at any indie-rock show or killing time at any grungy café that offers free refills.
Alan (Justin Rice) has just moved to New York from Boston after the breakup of his band. Though he admits that "most of the people who live in this town can't afford to live in this town," phone conversations with his patient father indicate Alan's disinclination to actually support himself financially. He's too wrapped up in the "thrilling possibilities" offered by the Big Apple, be they people who might further his music career or young women who find his bashful-slacker shtick endearing, women like Sara (Seung-Min Lee), a college-radio DJ who digs his songs, or the trio of drunk ladies who persuade him to cross-dress for their amusement.
Yet Alan is more opportunistic than he lets on and that makes him a threat to his two closest friends, Ellie (Rachel Clift) and Lawrence (played by the director, who also wrote and edited Mutual Appreciation). Bored of her stable but dull relationship with Lawrence, Ellie finds herself drawn to Alan. Though he also wants to be loyal to Lawrence, the newcomer is a little too used to having his whims indulged.
This burgeoning love triangle forms the core of the delightfully wry second feature by Bujalski, a 29-year-old Harvard film-school grad who has become the new darling of the American indie movie scene. Though his first film, 2002's Funny Ha Ha, didn't get into wider circulation until last year, it ended up on the annual top-10 lists of many major U.S. critics. Mutual Appreciation -- which makes its Toronto premiere this weekend -- should earn him more supporters.
Like its predecessor, the new film was made with a cast of friends and fellow filmmakers. Though shot on a tiny budget, it looks sharp, thanks to the black-and-white 16 mm photography. Bujalski's deceptively casual style as a director is reflected in the hesitant, tentative nature of his characters' interactions.
What's so fresh about Mutual Appreciation is how acutely it represents the social rituals of today's post-collegiate types. Drifting along in a state of permanent adolescence, the young people in Bujalski's films find it easy to trade sarcastic barbs or hook up for the night and far harder to define themselves. Though Alan makes some progress in that regard, he's not one to experience some life-changing epiphany. As the tension with Ellie escalates, he becomes ever more adept at evading the conflicts and dilemmas that could happen if he really put himself on the line. He's not so much a coward as risk-averse. In other words, he's a lover for our times, a Lothario in thrift-store clothes. Likewise, Mutual Appreciation is a very modern sort of romance.
Mutual Appreciation, today through Oct. 16, Bloor Cinema.