The mumblecore sub-set of the US indie film movement seems to be gathering momentum.
More than a dozen movies in that guerilla filmmaking style premiered at this month's South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. One, Joe Swanberg's Alexander the Last, plus Barry Jenkins' Medicine For Melancholy and Joe Maggio's Paper Covers Rock launched simultaneously in 30 million US cable homes on the IFC Movies on Demand service. (Three Blind Mice, the Aussie film marking the writing-directing debut of actor Matthew Newton, focusing on three young Navy officers who hit Sydney for one last night before being shipped over to the Gulf, also launched on that service).
To the uninitiated (including me, until I discovered the term a few days ago), mumblecore refers to micro-budgeted movies, usually shot on digital with non-pro casts, chronicling often auto-biographical stories that dwell on relationships involving middle-class folks aged in their 20s and 30s.
The first mumblecore film, by general agreement, was Andrew Bujalski's 2002 Funny Ha Ha (pictured), a sweet-natured saga of a young Boston woman's post-college blues. But the movement wasn't christened until 2005 when sound mixer Eric Masunaga used the term at SXSW to describe an indie film he'd worked on, and Bujalski popularized it.
“In the films I've seen, the sound is quite clear. It's the emotions that mumble,” David Denby wrote in this month's New Yorker mag. “The movies tell stories but they're also a kind of lyrical documentary of American stasis and inarticulateness.”
At 27, Swanberg has six features to his credit, including Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah Takes the Stairs. Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells hailed Alexander the Last as a platinum calling-card movie for Swanberg and his two leads, Jess Weixler (who won a 2007 Sundance Special Jury prize for her performance in Teeth) and Amy Seimetz. It's the story of a young, married actress struggling to reconcile her feelings for her hunky leading man.
“We are getting to the point where the means of production are cheap enough so that a filmmaker can work like painters or writers,” Swanberg told the New York Times. “And it should not take millions and millions of dollars to find an audience for that work.”
Medicine for Melancholy follows two people in the 24 hours after they meet and hook up, talking class politics, and butting heads over race. Paper Covers Rock focuses on Sam, a troubled young woman who survives a suicide attempt and fights to regain her daughter.
Among other young filmmakers in the mumblecore collective are Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), Aaron Katz (Dance Party, USA), Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and Alex Holdridge (In Search of a Midnight Kiss). All that sounds intriguing. Too bad few of these films reach our shores. Funny Ha Ha and Bujalski's Mututal Appreciation are available here on DVD.