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Beeswax: Mumblecore grows up – beautifully

Tilly Hatcher (left) and Maggie Hatcher in a scene from "Beeswax."

Ethan Vogt

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Andrew Bujalski
Directed by
Andrew Bujalski
Tilly Hatcher, Maggie Hatcher and Alex Karpovsky

In the second scene in Beeswax, a sheepish Lauren tells her lover she is only half committed to their relationship. He says it works for him but if it doesn't work for her she should break up. Yes, she says, perhaps they should try breaking up. Why try, he demands, why not just do it? Okay, she agrees, with a shrug and a smile.

Her ambivalence and the indecision it engenders are perfectly captured in a scene that is sharply descriptive of feelings that are fluid and ill-defined. That is the remarkable achievement of writer-director Andrew Bujalski ( Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation), one of those independent American directors whose work has been labelled mumblecore, because of the improvised dialogue and drifting characters. But the twentysomethings are pushing 30 now and as Jeannie and Lauren, the twin sisters at the heart of Beeswax, renegotiate their love lives and their careers, both emerge as energetic and admirable characters. No slackers they. The film feels like spending an afternoon with them: Occasionally the experience is heart-stopping, often it's joyous; the results may be ambiguous but one leaves certain that the encounter was somehow fruitful.

That sense of intimacy can probably be attributed directly to the amateur status of Tilly Hatcher and Maggie Hatcher - friends of the director and real twin sisters, they actually work as a teacher and a doctor. With their help, Bujalski establishes a thoroughly convincing naturalism, thanks partly to the improvised dialogue and partly to the completely casual way in which he treats Tilly/Jeannie's disability: Although it is never discussed or explained beyond the occasional reference to dismantling her wheelchair to get it into the car, she has no use of her legs. When she is late for a business meeting because somebody made the mistake of putting the wheelchair in the trunk where she cannot reach it, she makes no complaint but simply hails a passerby for help.

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If there is any drama in the plot, it revolves around Jeannie's business, a successful vintage clothing store that she operates with the neglectful and largely absent Amanda, who Jeannie suspects wants to sue her and take over the store. Meanwhile, the more carefree Lauren is looking for work and wondering if a job teaching in Nairobi is the solution.

The tension, or at least the stress, of Jeannie's situation is heightened by Bujalski's style, which makes the motivations of a secondary character entirely opaque. That works fine for Amanda - it reflects Jeannie's and our own very limited understanding of what her partner can be thinking - but it is less satisfying when it comes to Jeannie herself. She is getting back together with Merrill (the sympathetic Alex Karpovsky), a law student ready to rush to her rescue on the business front and to renew their love.

Why this agreeable couple broke up in the first place remains a mystery: While the naturalism achieved through improvised dialogue can be highly effective in revealing characters' current state, it is of very little use in explaining backstory, history and even motivation. A couple does not, after all, spend a lot of time telling each other things both partners already know.

We have to be willing to simply be with Lauren, Jeannie and Merrill: It is typical of Bujalski's finely wrought observation of their lives that the film ends, as it began, with a moment in which Lauren is poised, indecisively, on the cusp of a decision.

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