The late critic Manny Farber was most famous for his distinction between “White Elephant Art” and “Termite Art.” The former referred to bloated, self-important works (awards fodder, basically), the latter to art much more modest in scale, but also more valued for “eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaving nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” Writer-director Andrew Bujalski has three features under his belt—Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and the new “legal thriller” Beeswax—and they’re the ultimate in termite artistry, nibbling away at the margins with determinedly low-concept premises and characters who speak with the unvarnished semi-articulateness of real people. (Or at least the young, college-educated, anxiety-ridden people Bujalski so astutely chronicles.) It’s hard to think of Bujalski as a radical, but in his little corner of the cinematic universe, he’s quietly changing the rules.
Beeswax turns on what must be the least consequential legal kerfuffle in movie history: Tilly Hatcher, the wheelchair-bound proprietor of a vintage clothing store in Austin, is getting threats that her business partner (Anne Dodge) may sue to get out of their arrangement. Stung by their deteriorating friendship and overwhelmed by contractual fine print, Hatcher turns to her ex-boyfriend (Alex Karpovsky), a law student who’s eager to help and especially eager to rekindle their relationship. Meanwhile, Hatcher’s twin sister, played by Maggie Hatcher, is caught up in her own uncertainties, drifting between boyfriends and jobs, and seriously considering heading overseas to teach English in Kenya.
While the relationship between twin sisters, one paraplegic and the other not (or as the tagline reads, “Same face, different bodies…”), sounds like a hook, Bujalski does his level best to keep it from being one; Tilly’s handicap is treated with subtle, incidental observation, but her toughness and vibrancy plays a much more imposing role in the film. Beeswax amounts to the sum of countless small moments, as Bujalski and his fine cast of non-professional actors reveal the wax and wane of various career, family, and romantic relationships. There’s real drama and tension in Beeswax, but as in Bujalski’s previous efforts, it’s couched in the shy passive-aggression of those who go out of their way to avoid conflict. That may not sound terribly dynamic—as the director’s vocal detractors will no doubt testify—but Bujalski’s funny, diverting character piece has a lived-in quality that’s no small achievement.