I’m not looking to be happy.
Everything surrounding Andrew Bujalski‘s Mutual Appreciation makes it seem as though the film centers upon singer-songwriter Alan (Justin Rice of Bishop Allen). This isn’t necessarily true. His arrival in New York City after his band The Bumblebees fell apart in Boston is the catalyst for what’s to come, but his friends Lawrence (Bujalski) and Ellie (Rachel Clift) are just as crucial to the whole. The title itself relies on the trio because their interest in each other runs the risk of crossing romantic boundaries considering Lawrence and Ellie are in a committed monogamous relationship. The short-hand between the men, her love of Alan’s music, and the latter’s struggle to move on from his ex throws them together to work out their feelings and ultimately strengthen their common bonds.
This process is nicely constructed with long conversations, frank admissions, and plenty of awkward pauses to get to the heart of their insecurities and platonic love. The film finds a welcome groove anytime the trio is together or separate and yet still talking about each other. What’s unfortunate, however, is that these moments only make up about a half of the runtime. The rest is filled in usual mumblecore fashion with eccentric, meandering situations that don’t quite infer upon the larger picture with enough purpose to feel anything but distraction. That’s not to say those instances aren’t enjoyable in their own right, however. Watching Patricia (Pamela Corkey), Rebecca (Mary Varn), and Hildy (Kate Dollenmayer) dress Alan like a woman is sweetly fun if also on an island alone.
Its pieces are thus greater than its whole. That’s an apt description, but it does do it a disservice since you’d have to remove a lot of its best parts to make the whole better. Then where are you? A more complete film isn’t therefore always the goal when a messier variation earns the audience’s attention with greater impact. We like the weird situation Alan is thrust into by an interviewer (Seung-Min Lee‘s Sara) looking to have fun and help his cause (she recommends her brother to be his stand-in drummer) despite his discomfort. He wrongly reads the dynamic as one of coercion because he felt obligated to follow her lead in private to reap the professional benefits in public. It infers upon his anxieties, but is superfluous.
We need their coupling to put Alan in the headspace to get drunk one night, call his ex, and confront the tumultuous feelings within that ultimately rise to the surface with Ellie later. That specific design for Sara’s character, however, also ensures we never care about her as anything more than a pawn to be used and thrown away (which she is once the plot no longer needs her help pushing things forward). It’s commendable on a logistical level that Bujalski realizes he can’t go back to her later because she would only end up halting Alan’s progress, but it also lends one more stilted hitch to the story as though we’re constantly skipping over scratches on the disc before continuing on as if nothing happened.
There’s a very disjointed nature to time in this way as so much is being said and done that really is inconsequential to the main through-line of whether Alan’s presence will bring Lawrence and Ellie closer or tear them apart. Again, though, the excess plays a role. Do we care about Patricia? No. But she does enter the fray as an outsider to Lawrence’s sphere of existence with another yet unseen woman (Rebecca) in tow to run a risk of possible flirtation that would lead Ellie to jealousy despite Ellie being the one who actually does something that should earn jealousy from Lawrence instead. It’s a captivating web of potential fireworks that can’t help underwhelming when each character proves boringly chaste in the long run.
I use “boring” in the sense that the real drama comes on the heels of the promise for bigger drama not being fulfilled. So I found myself caught in the middle of my desire for more and my appreciation from receiving less. Executing a huge blow-up that threatens to make it so this trio never talks to each other again wouldn’t actually add anything to the film and yet you do feel its absence nonetheless. There’s an authenticity to this that makes Mutual Appreciation real even if it also makes it less effective as a singular story. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, since life is full of random events we don’t realize affect our future until hindsight exposes their impact years later.
All of this is to say I enjoyed myself more than not. Rice and Clift are great as they struggle to reconcile complacency with actual desire beyond the present moment. The former’s music (songs from Bishop Allen’s debut album Charm School) is good enough to earn the attention Ellie has been trying to drum up (with everyone ignoring her because they assume she’s merely talking up a friend) and the black and white grainy visual quality helps us invest in the dialogue above camera tricks. This trio’s minds are wandering farther than their hearts would like to allow and they’re the only ones able to talk sense into each other despite being the object of their straying eyes. The result is explosive drama that’s refreshingly not inherently destructive.