Watching twentysomethings talk

A new film genre features inarticulate non-actors, but Hollywood’s paying attention
Jordan Timm

A late summer evening in a downtown Toronto apartment finds two people holding digital video cameras while another wields a boom microphone. One small light adds a little brightness to the scene playing out for the cameras: a pair of amateur actors sitting on a couch with a laptop computer, improvising dialogue about the Internet meme LOLcats. The film’s working title is No Heart Feelings. Glance at the set and it’s your standard-issue amateur movie shoot. Squint a little harder and you’re seeing one of the first Canadian contributions to a burgeoning indie film genre self-deprecatingly called mumblecore.

While mumblecore doesn’t have a strict definition or dogma, there are a few traits common to the films that have earned the label. Ultra-low budget. Non-professional actors. Improv. Not much in the way of narrative arc. Instead, a series of vignettes: talky social scenarios in the lives of hipsters in their 20s as they deal with relationships and struggle to communicate via the self-consciously inarticulate manner that’s coming to define their generation.

“A friend of mine calls it ‘the pathetic aesthetic,’ ” says Sarah Lazarovic, one of the three writers-slash-directors-slash-crew members working on No Heart Feelings, a depiction of a twentysomething love triangle. She and partners Ryan Noth and Geoff Morrison have just wrapped shooting on a film that ticks off most of the boxes on the mumblecore checklist. Instead of actors, they cast friends and friends of friends. They used consumer-level video equipment—what they didn’t already own, they rented. They wrecked two wireless microphone transmitters during the filming of a canoeing scene, says Morrison. “And that was 10 per cent of our budget.”

Despite the low budgets, it’s not fair to call the genre pathetic. It’s produced a few remarkable films, Mutual Appreciation among the most notable. The handiwork of a young Harvard grad named Andrew Bujalski, the 2005 film revolved around the lives of four young Brooklyn residents. There were moments in the film—such as a scene where one character’s eyes were obscured by the set’s lights reflecting on the lenses of his glasses—that nakedly betrayed its amateur status. But there was a high level of craft evident behind the camera, and the movie turned heads. “I remember watching it and thinking that I’ve never seen a better-acted film,” Morrison says.

The name “mumblecore” gained currency after Bujalski used it jokingly in a 2005 interview. His debut film, Funny Ha Ha, had just been released on DVD and Mutual Appreciation had earned a screening at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. That year’s festival featured several movies that seemed of a kind with Mutual Appreciation. There was talk of a new movement in American filmmaking, bolstered by the invention of a catchy name with which to brand it.

Bujalski’s films were among the dozen mumblecore features that comprised a 2007 retrospective of the genre called “Generation DIY: The New Talkies,” screened by New York’s IFC Center. Since the films had achieved little in terms of theatrical release, the IFC showcase crucially introduced the genre to a wider audience. Members of the mumblecorps like writer/directors Jay and Mark Duplass—the brothers who made 2005’s canonical The Puffy Chair—found doors opening for them; their new feature Baghead, a sort of mumblecore horror flick, screened at this year’s Sundance Festival and earned a distribution deal from Sony Classics. And Bujalski is currently working on a screenplay for Paramount.

If it seems like there’s now more of a chance for filmmakers working within the limitations faced (or chosen) by the mumblecore auteurs, thank the very thing that provides thematic material for so many of their films: the Internet. It’s provided a means for cinephiles to network, to learn about, and get their hands on—and buzz about—films that won’t be showing up at the local megaplex. That’s how the No Heart Feelings gang became mumblecore devotees in the first place. “I ordered Funny Ha Ha from Andrew Bujalski,” Lazarovic says. “He didn’t have distribution. You sent him $15, he sent you the DVD.”

Whatever the stylistic quirks of the films, they’re ultimately works by people who want their stories to be heard—which is one reason the genre’s filmmakers are leery of the name. Says Noth of No Heart Feelings, “We didn’t want it to be mumbly . . . ” Lazarovic chimes in: “We wanted it to be articulate.”