This is the era of mainstream independent features. Between online streaming, the emergence of female filmmakers telling their stories in dramatic and eye-opening ways, the success of many filmmakers through television gigs (Duplass Brothers, “Cyrus”) and award season exposure (Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”), now is the time for independent films.
An independent film is characterized as a motion picture that is produced outside of the large studio system and costs less to make than a traditional film. Of these films, there is a subset genre that has been christened “mumblecore.” Some of the people most often affiliated with this movement include the Duplass brothers, Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”), Lynn Shelton (“Touchy Feely”), Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”).
The main themes of a mumblecore film are their reliance on realistic, often mumbled dialogue, improvisation and often reflections on the lives of 20 or-30 somethings trying to make it through life unscathed. Early predecessors included French New Wave films, the Danish Dogme 95 movement and the advent of 21 century digital filmmaking, which is often utilized in mumblecore productions. The godfather of this movement is mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha Ha”), who brought the term to attention and directed the first film in the mumblecore genre.
Stories created, written, directed and starring 20-somethings isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s one that’s being given serious credence in modern filmmaking and television productions. The most iconic figure in this regard is Lena Dunham, whose critically-lauded television show, “Girls,” tells stories about misanthropic girls living in New York City boroughs while dealing with love and personal growth. Her first and only film, “Tiny Furniture,” sees a pre-“Girls” Dunham debasing herself for a guy she doesn’t know, being rudely selfish and finding dissatisfaction with post-grad life. This trope is similar to many mumblecore films, which often deal with angst, dispassion, greed and indulgence. Past independent films deemed these emotions just, and celebrated those that had them. They celebrated rebellion, free love and extravagance. Most of the films in this genre are happy to put out the disclaimer that haplessness is no longer “cool.”
In these films many of the characters are jobless, artistic, very young, naïve and addled with all manner of compulsions. There’s always a layer of ambivalence, the characters sometimes bewildered while in a drug-fueled haze, or made dissatisfied by their intellectual posturing. In the beloved “Hannah Takes the Stairs” our protagonist (Gerwig) and her boyfriend (Mark Duplass, “Togetherness”) don’t want to make love, but have no other ideas on how to spend their time. Characters spend more time discussing big life decisions than doing them. These films thrive because they are realistic, spending a lot of time on supposedly big moments that often have very little going on in them. To retain realism and intimacy in his films, Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) often improvises entire films, just letting the plot go where it feels comfortable.
There are many positives to the genre, including the inclusion of female filmmakers, who can easily tell their own unique, focused stories without needing major studio’s approval. Of the top 250 highest grossing films of 2013, women only comprised 6 percent of the total directors. Compare that to the percentage of female directors at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, which was a whopping 28.9 percent. Many of the most innovative, talented female directors of the current age are working in independent films, and many of them start in mumblecore. Greta Gerwig began making independent films way back in 2006 when she starred in Joe Swanberg’s “LOL.” Since then she has starred in mainstream films like “No Strings Attached” and partnered with indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach for “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha.” She remains a seminal figure in the movement, and now co-writes and directs many of the independent films she once only starred in.
One of the main downsides to this genre is its polarizing inclusion of only white, middle class, 20-year-olds. There aren’t many characters who are older than 30, and diversity is hard to find among these moody braggarts. The main reason for this is that these filmmakers write what they know, and have remained very close knit. Swanberg, Gerwig, Bujalski and the Duplass brothers all work together consistently, and turn out films at a quick pace. Most of these filmmakers’ lives have been spent in dissatisfied wandering. They’re striving to find employment, love and acceptance in a society that devalues emotion. This doesn’t succinctly explain the lack of diversity, which is pretty shocking. This can be ascertained as many of these director’s reality, as many simply write what they know. An even subtler distinction is that it’s just another distinguishing characteristic of these film’s characters, as they are often spoiled, petty young adults.
This movement, which has grown steadily in the past couple years, thanks to exposure from streaming sites, speaks for 20-somethings, an often criticized group. I think I speak for many in disclosing that I hope they’re not speaking for all of us.