Whenever a film shoots for "realism," it generally opens the door for a predictable set of signifiers: Handheld cameras, real locations, a naturalistic lighting scheme, streetwise dialogue, and tortured Method theatrics. In just two features, Funny Ha Ha and the new Mutual Appreciation, writer-director Andrew Bujalski has reconfigured the language to something much closer to the real thing. His DIY aesthetic and semi-improvisational dialogue has earned him frequent comparison to John Cassavetes, but he doesn't care nearly as much for high-pitched emotion; the characters in his films are awkward and inexpressive to the point where they can't say what they feel, at least not without fumbling around with it first. Mutual Appreciation isn't much more than a refinement of Funny Ha Ha, following a similar group of idle twentysomethings as they struggle with relationship issues and attempt to give their lives some traction. And yet it's equally uncanny to watch, because Bujalski's brand of stylized dialogue sounds genuinely fly-on-the-wall.
The scruffily charismatic Justin Rice stars as a musician who moves to New York just after his band breaks up, which puts him in a weird spot, since he's due to play later in the week. Once he arrives in town, Rice reconnects with his friend Bujalski, a good-natured graduate student, and Bujalski's girlfriend Rachel Clift, to whom Rice begins to develop an unspoken (and, as it happens, mutual) attraction. Meanwhile, Rice finds a champion and more in attractive college radio DJ Seung-min Lee, but gets into trouble when he brings on Lee's brother as his drummer and tries to get some distance from her romantically.
All this intrigue sets up a romantic encounter between Rice and Clift, and a serious rupture in their relationship with Bujalski, but nothing in Mutual Appreciation goes according to the usual script. The scene in which Rice and Clift finally vocalize their feelings for each other is the perfect example of what Bujalski does so well: Any other romantic melodrama would have them bubbling over with passion, but these characters are painfully tentative and believably so, given that they're both betraying someone they care about. What ends up happening between them is completely unexpected, yet entirely true to who they are and to how most caring people would act. But such things rarely happen onscreen, and Bujalski's willingness to follow through makes him a singular talent.