I’ve already made a case for both Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy in review form, but let me open this post by making a less subtle plea: If you care at all about American independent films, you’re required to see these movies. (Mutual Appreciation has already opened in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, and is rolling out gradually to other cities; Old Joy opened at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday and will expand from there.) Though both deal with a similar sort of generational crisis—namely, the struggle of people in their late 20s or early 30s to find or accept their way in the adult world—they really don’t have that much in common. Bujalski specializes in fumbling, inarticulate (yet smart and winning and sensitive) characters who talk elaborate curlicues around their feelings; Reichardt is gifted with realistic dialogue, too, but she’s more inclined towards wordless, lyrical sequences that soak in the ambience of her natural backdrop.
Watching these movies in short succession was a pretty bracing experience for me, as was seeing Bujalski’s debut feature Funny Ha Ha several years ago (Old Joy is the first Reichardt film I’ve seen, and I’m told that her feature River Of Grass and her shorts are equally stunning). And that’s not simply because I was being introduced to singular talents, either, but also because they drummed up some troubling questions about the state of American independent film in general. Such as: Why aren’t we seeing more independent films like these? Are there more Bujalskis and Reichardts in hiding somewhere? After the studios co-opted the independent movement with their specialty divisions (Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent Pictures, Focus Features, etc.), has the door completely closed for true independent films? Are directors who could be making low-key films such as Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy having to tailor their art in order to appeal to these studio divisions?
What’s disturbing to me is that I don’t know that there’s a market for films like these anymore. Studio specialty divisions, who are more inclined to embrace modestly budgeted projects with major stars working for scale, have no use for scrappy, low-concept relationship movies made on the cheap. And true independent distributors often shy away from Amerindies of this sort to address a niche, like gay-themed titles or foreign-language films or documentaries. Who can blame them, really? The late, great Cowboy Booking International took a chance on David Gordon Green’s George Washington—as beautiful and visionary a debut feature as any in the ‘00s—but couldn’t do anything with it, despite festival exposure and excellent reviews across the board. It took about two years of minor festival bookings and critical word-of-mouth to give Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha a legitimate theatrical release, and even then a distributor (Goodbye Cruel Releasing) had to be created for the express purpose of putting it out.
So vote with your dollars, people: If you want to see more movies like Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy, you have to create a viable market for them. Otherwise, you’ll be left to hold out for Little Miss Sunshine 2.