After reaching an apparent artistic and popular breakthrough with “Support the Girls,” Andrew Bujalski sort of returns to Mumblecore, the genre he trail-blazed two decades ago, as necessitated by COVID-19.
“There There,” world premiering at the 2022 Tribeca Festival, visually recalls the D.I.Y. aesthetics from the first decade of the writer-director-editor’s career. Premise-wise, it’s one of those interconnected ensemble pieces that peaked, or perhaps jumped the shark, in the aughts with Paul Haggis’ “Crash.”
Structurally, the film contains six segments separated by transitional overtures of the type more prevalent in the 1970s, except here we see the musician actually performing diegetically. Yet even with adherence to familiar conventions, the finished product feels experimental and cerebral.
Each segment is essentially a two-hander. Due to the quarantine, Bujalski filmed all the performances separately and stitched them together, shot-reverse shot, in post. It’s to his credit that this logistical challenge is barely noticeable to the uninitiated, although without this bit of context, viewers would likely be much less forgiving of the film’s increasing aloofness and overall fragmented quality. An affable character in one scene reveals a repugnant side in another. Initially sweet and hopeful, the film gradually reveals more and more bitterness as it peels off each layer of the onion.
“There There” gets off to a promising start with its strongest scene, featuring two unnamed characters played by Lili Taylor and Lennie James (“Save Me”) in bed basking in the afterglow of their hook-up. Despite his enthusiasm about their future, she seems resolved to dampen it as a defense mechanism. As he showers her with compliments, she begins quizzing him about how he might go about murdering her if he were a serial killer.
Taylor and James have such fantastic chemistry, it’s mind-blowing the actors aren’t physically sharing the same space. At this point, the only thing that seems markedly unusual is Matthias Grunsky’s awkward framing. It’s unclear if the fuzziness of the close-ups is a byproduct of digital noise or shots being out of focus.
In the next scene, Taylor’s character meets up with her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, played by Annie LaGanga (Bujalski’s “Computer Chess”), who appears no-nonsense but empathetic while giving some tough love when her sponsee feels empowered to drink after the previous night’s tryst. Bujalski’s writing is crisp and absurdist, while Taylor and LaGanga carry out their interactions believably as if they were actually sitting across from each other on the coffee shop patio. As Lena Dunham has done with her recent “Sharp Stick,” Bujalski displays a natural progression in his thematic preoccupations, even if that same maturity doesn’t also manifest in the filmmaking craft. So far, so good.
Things start going downhill in the following scene, a P.T.A. meeting attended by LaGanga’s character and her son’s teacher, played by Molly Gordon (“Booksmart,” “Shiva Baby”). The mother confronts the teacher with an upskirt video her son recorded in class and proceeds to bully her with accusations of incompetence and inability to exercise authority over her pupils. What Bujalski wishes to say about either character is unclear. While LaGanga makes a mean Karen, Gordon’s emotional unraveling doesn’t make sense.
It’s not apparent until afterward that the scene shared by LaGanga and Gordon is merely a poorly conceived and executed pretext for the succeeding one: Jason Schwartzman plays an attorney who advises Avi Nash’s soulless tech magnate and head of a video site that allows the unseen student discussed in the P.T.A. meeting to upload and profit from the aforementioned upskirt video and other child pornography. Although Bujalski approaches the scene with a clear vision and purpose, one gets the sense that this isn’t a milieu in which he is especially well-versed. The scene revolves around the film’s only virtually-conducted (in context) interaction, but the technology is not conducive to this particular exchange. It’s uncertain whether that’s a function of the scene itself or just short-sighted screenwriting.
By the time we reach the scene between Schwartzman’s character and the apparition of a mentor (played by Roy Nathanson), “There There” has gone completely off the rails. The film’s central thesis that there are two sides to every coin doesn’t suffice as a plot that moves forward. The fact that the narrative plays out like a relay race means that viewers don’t emotionally invest in any of the characters. The ones we root for in the first half prove unworthy by the end, and any revelation of conscience isn’t enough to redeem the rest in the second half.
“There There” is about as unapproachable as Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” Experimentalism isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but the form, content, visuals, and motifs of “There There” aren’t inspired or interesting enough to warrant serious mental engagement. “Support the Girls” is exciting not simply because it is accessible, but because it’s a successful example of Bujalski thriving, making something vibrant outside his comfort zone. “There There” feels like a retreat to older work he’s thought to have long moved away from, and a somewhat haphazard retreat at that.
“There There” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.