I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually like film reviewers referring to themselves. That kind of behaviour should remain the preserve of restaurant critics and their “companions”; however, it turns out that I have a vested interest in Beeswax. Although it’s close to being an ensemble piece, its star by a nose, Tilly Hatcher, is a wheelchair user, and so am I. Two reviews in parallel then; the objective Screenjabber film-fans-writing-for-film-fans strand, and the we’re-not-all-billionaire-evil-geniuses-you-know version.
Writing, directing and acting in Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005) and appearing in 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (directed by Joe Swanberg), Beeswax writer/director/editor Andrew Bujalski was a key player in the rise of the “mumblecore” style, a return to US indie low-budget basics in which articulate but inexpressive twentysomethings say very little in as many words as possible. Direction is clean and unobtrusive, storytelling linear, performances naturalistic - the overall style is almost like documentary.
While Swanberg has rejected the mumblecore label, Bujalski’s latest fits the criteria neatly, albeit in a more grown-up manner. Funny Ha Ha was an excruciating study in Brooklynite awkwardness in which the answer to every question was “I dunno. Yeah, it’s like, no, there’s this, well, I dunno…” For Beeswax, the inaction has moved to Austin, Texas and the assembled mumblers have eased into their thirties. These changes bring a more sedate pace and, thankfully, a much more concise and expressive (but still natural) dialogue style.
Twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (actual twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher) share a house in Austin. Jeannie co-owns a vintage clothing shop which is doing reasonable if unspectacular business while Lauren, who is between jobs and boyfriends, is looking for work. By mumblecore standards they are both high-flying career women. Due to a spinal condition, Jeannie (or rather, Tilly Hatcher) uses a wheelchair. In films, wheelchairs are usually there as shorthand, signalling that the character is clever, emotionally damaged, or (usually) both. In Beeswax, Jeannie’s disability is almost irrelevant, something she and the people around her are completely used to; occasional scenes show how extra time and effort are required to complete everyday actions, and how spontaneity is a rare and precious commodity when everything has to be planned in advance.
The way in which the kindness of strangers can make a difference is neatly illustrated when a passer-by helps Jeannie get her wheelchair out of her car’s boot. The situation could so easily lead somewhere sinister, or funny, or flirty, but simply goes ahead without drama, giving us a little extra insight into her day-to-day life. Friends, too; negotiating a muddy path across a field, Lauren carries Tilly piggyback AND carries the wheelchair in her hands; it’s an impressive physical feat but the scene is more noteworthy for its natural, un-sensational nature. This is how we do it, look, A to B. A more subtle difference between the sisters is how they express themselves. Lauren conveys a lot through gesture, posture and motion, while Jeannie, with her reduced range of movement, uses exaggerated facial expressions. Her obvious concerned/confused/amused faces may seem hammy but let me assure you they’re the real deal.
Bujalski has called Beeswax “A legal thriller for people who consider “legal thriller” to be an oxymoron”, and what story there is gets its momentum from the possibility of a lawsuit. Jeannie’s relationship with her partner in the clothes shop, Amanda (Dodge), is tense, and Amanda may or may not be about to sue her. Enter Jeannie’s ex-boyfriend Merrill (Karpovsky), who’s taking his bar exams - so he can help with the legal stuff, but also sees an opportunity to become an ex-ex-boyfriend. Merrill is a proper good egg, the type of character that doesn’t usually get much screen time. While his motives for giving Jeannie legal advice aren’t entirely altruistic, she’s just as eager to resume their physical relationship.
Meetings, chats and visits ensue. While the threat of legal action hovers in the background, it’s mostly used to nudge things along to the next character interaction. Beeswax is a laid-back (but not lazy) film which refuses to sensationalise anything, concentrating instead on the complex details of simple people. Some time is spent with the twins’ mother and her partner Sally (Pierson), and again, as with Jeannie’s disability and the potential litigation, nothing is made of the fact that the girls’ mum is gay. Hey, some people are.
The abrupt way the story - or rather, the audience’s allotted viewing period - begins and ends (a Bujalski signature) will polarise opinion. Rather than an intro-middle-finale structure, it’s clear that the story is a continuous process and we’re only seeing a certain part. Personally I like the implication that the characters have lives outside the film’s 100 minute runtime. Appropriately, the film has a lingering aftertaste; for something seemingly light, it makes a lasting impression. A pleasant, easygoing film about pleasant, easygoing people doing stuff, flirting, examining old relationships, starting new ones, getting in each others’ business (hence the title) and thinking about the future, Beeswax is quietly winning. While still self-indulgent and rambling, it’s a tighter piece of storytelling than Funny Ha Ha, with dialogue that’s believable and occasionally quotable (Merrill’s all-night coffee-fuelled law study gives him “power diarrhoea”, an interesting concept). The editing could do with a firmer hand - some scenes do nothing to advance the plot or increase our understanding of a character - and some of the dialogue seems to have been left in purely for the sake of realism; people do go on, don’t they? In terms of entertainment, Beeswax is a solid but unexciting three-star work. For its exemplary, unsensational treatments of potential “issues” - disability and sexuality - it deserves more, so overall: Four, and a “Well done” comment.