Bujalski's first production, set in a postgraduate milieu, drew heavily on his college confreres, using nonprofessionals to portray a small galaxy of awkwardly diffident young people the most obnoxious loser played by the filmmaker himself. The movie, which won Bujalski an Independent Spirit award, was titled Funny Ha Ha precisely because it wasn't. Or, rather, wasn't exactly. (Funny, that is.)
Gently persistent in its ironies, Funny Ha Ha managed to be both charmingly lackadaisical and annoyingly smug; Mutual Appreciation, which Bujalski shot in grainy black-and-white in hipster Brooklyn (and is self-distributing), is even more so. The movie opens with a couple sprawled out on a mattress ... talking. Ellie (Rachel Clift), a thin girl with retro-bobbed hair, is mumbling something about being a tired vegetarian; Alan (Justin Rice) is mainly grinning a big-faced smirk.
Bujalski's characters don't suggest types so much as behavioral nebulae whose interactions are soft, tentative collisions (or, perhaps, mutual appreciations). Just as Ellie and Alan's conversation drifts to a halt, her live-in boyfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) returns home from grad school and flounces down between them. No orgies today, though. Sex in Bujalski-land is typically represented as an exploratory kiss that leads to little more than universal confusion as Ellie will later explain in a poignant scene wherein the kiss itself never actually happens.
So what does? Variety's reviewer nailed the format: Bujalski turns a John Cassavetes camera on an Eric Rohmer talkfest, except that the camera is more relaxed and the actors less animated. Alan, it develops, is a rock star or at least one who, newly arrived in New York, aspires to the success enjoyed by the actor who plays him. (Rice is founder of the indie-rock band Bishop Allen; his cohort Christian Rudder appeared in Funny Ha Ha.) Interviewed by a flirtatious left-dial DJ (Seung-Min Lee), Alan is next seen at her place, explaining that his band drifted apart and he really needs a drummer.
Bujalski's most avant-garde device is simply cutting from scene to scene, letting the temporal ellipses fall where they might: Alan and the DJ are having dinner when she climbs onto his lap and we deduce that it all has something to do with her drum-playing brother. In a parallel development, Lawrence has been asked by a friend of one of his students to participate, as part of an all-male cast, in a staged reading of women's oral histories. He doesn't really say yes, but he's unable to say no.
Unaccountably intriguing, these activities build to a series of deadpan dramatic set pieces: Alan's triumphantly credible performance at Northsix is rewarded with two excruciating post-gig parties. His attempt to disengage himself from his demi-consort at one gathering is followed by a creepy-ha-ha run-in with a trio of bewigged witches at a Williamsburg soiree where he's the only other guest.
Youth-film protagonists typically act as if they're living in a movie. Bujalski's appear to be trapped between parentheses. More fascinating than his borderline tiresome characters is Bujalski's knack for constructing narrative and characterization out of a smartly edited array of seemingly improvised performances and an apparently aimless succession of uninflected moments. (Within the story, his characters can try to figure out if they really had a "moment.")
As filmmaking, Mutual Appreciation is too stringent to be self-indulgent. Disdaining glamour, Bujalski thrives on the modest truth of clumsy mishaps and incoherent riffs. Cambridge has a long history of experimental documentary-based filmmaking, from cinéma vérité pioneer Ricky Leacock and ethno-romantic Robert Gardner through Ed Pincus' diaries and Ross McElwee's first-person essays to confessional Super-8 comedians like Joe Gibbons and Anne Robertson. Bujalski extends the tradition. His characters are certain mainly in their uncertainty. His movies feel most authentic when his actors seem most acutely aware of their inauthenticity.
There's a philosophical paradox at the heart of the filmmaker's enterprise. As wistful Ellie tells embarrassed Alan, "Reality would be nice to talk about." Isn't that the truth.