This past year at SXSW, there were these rather humorous advertisements for the festival before every screening. Among them were parodies of such classics as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. But the one that stuck out to me the most was a peculiar little riff on the HARRY POTTER franchise. It introduced me to the phrase “mumblecore”, which left me kind of perplexed. “So what is mumblecore anyway?” was a question that I posed to quite a few people during my inaugural trip to the festival. Some responded with “Oh, its this indie thing. Low-budget film making. You know what I’m talking about.” But for the most part, I got something along the line of “Are you talking about that commercial in front of (insert movie title here)? I think they just made it up for laughs.”
Eventually though, I got a straight answer. Mumblecore, a term coined during the editing process for Andrew Bujalski’s FUNNY HA HA, is a movement in the indie film scene, dealing with interpersonal relationships of the hipster variety and characterized by hand held cameras, improvised dialogue and inexperienced actors. Finally having some closure, I was ready to embark on my first journey into mumblecore with BAGHEAD, a quirky little comedy with a dash of horror.
“When was the last time one of us had a major role in a feature film?”
“Its been a long time.”
“Never. We’ve never had a role in a big film.”
So begins the plight of struggling LA actors Matt (Ross Partridge) and Chad (Steve Zissis). Having just sat through a pretentious, yet acclaimed, art house flick their friend made, they decide that they’ve had it with being out of work, so they’re going to write and produce a film of their own. It’s the best way to make a splash in the festival circuit and best of all, it’ll have parts for them and their lady friends, Catherine (Elise Muller) and Michelle (Greta Gerwig). Trekking to Big Bear Lake, the group plans to lock themselves in a cabin and come up with a story and screenplay over the weekend (hey, that’s how Lucas wrote THE PHANTOM MENACE…). Problem is, besides for their stockpile of alcohol, they’ve got little to inspire them.
And up until this point, what the Duplass Brothers have on their hands is just a typical, run-of-the-mill indie comedy. That is, until Michelle has a vivid dream the first night in the cabin where a man with a bag over his head stalks her. Matt thinks ol’ Baghead is an excellent character for a thriller and starts to hammer out a script, while Michelle tries to put the moves on him without Chad or Catherine finding out. Getting lost in the creative process, the group begins to question their reality. Was Michelle just dreaming? Or is Baghead out in the woods, waiting for the right moment to strike?
The undeniable charm of the film lies within its actors’ ability to effortlessly work inside of the heavily improvised script. The comedic dialogue that passes between the four friends comes off naturally, in a way that makes you believe both the characters and actors have a true sense of familiarity, and enables them to mold their sensibility to work within a thriller-esque second half. Guts or gore never rear their head in the film; its real moments of suspense that drive home the final stretch and in this day and age, even straight genre films have a hard time of conveying that.
To say my first experience in mumblecore was good would be an understatement. Truth be told, BAGHEAD has sleeper hit written all over it. It showcases the great lengths to which people will go to make it in the film biz and has a lot of genuine heart, something which many modern indie films are sorely missing.