Shoestring budgets and disaffected youth: why Australian film is ripe for a mumblecore revival

“Like Bridget Jones directed by John Cassavetes” was how one Guardian review described the first mumblecore film.

The film, Funny Ha Ha, was US director Andrew Bujalski’s debut: a shoestring budget affair following a cast of twentysomethings suspended in postgraduate ennui – not so much coming of age as fumbling their way towards adulthood via awkward encounters and half-baked conversations.

Premiering in 2002 at a small festival in Alabama, critical acclaim quietly snowballed. It wasn’t long before a nebulous scene of interconnected directors had sprung up in the film’s wake – American indie pioneers including the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg and the late Lynn Shelton, who made their name off films which eschewed any definable narrative in favour of plotlines as meandering as their millennial characters.

Its heyday in the US may be long gone, diffusing into the early 2010s with increasingly mainstream offshoots – including, notably, the TV series Girls. But a recent contingent of Australian directors are offering something of a mumblecore revival, with films such as Hot Mess, Pretty Good Friends, and Chocolate Oyster leaning into the particularly local inclinations of the genre – if it is one at all.

James Vaughan’s first feature Friends and Strangers, which is streaming digitally at this year’s Sydney film festival, might be one of them – though he’s not fully sold on the label.

“‘Mumblecore’ is something that I’ve intuitively disliked,” he says over Zoom. “I guess it just depends on how we’re defining it.”

This contest over mumblecore’s parameters has plagued the genre since its inception, when it was first coined after the fast and loose quality of its dialogue, so naturalistic it was often unintelligible. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” Bujalski himself said in 2013.

Still, “there is definitely crossover between my film and mumblecore”, Vaughan concedes. “Mumblecore is coming from a generation of people that have grown up with the internet, and this idea of social difficulty in real-life [settings] is just a fact of life.”

Friends and Strangers’ protagonist, Ray, embodies this difficulty. He wanders through Sydney like a modern-day slacker, listlessly drifting through a series of unfortunate events: a failed sexual encounter, a broken down car, and a neurotically wealthy photography client in the eastern suburbs.

Self-funded Australian film Friends and Strangers
Self-funded Australian film Friends and Strangers has dialogue that captures the clumsy idiosyncrasies of real conversation.

The film itself also conforms to what most proponents of mumblecore will agree are its integral traits: made on the smell of an oily rag (and, in this case, entirely self-funded), often with a cast of friends and collaborators, with dialogue that captures the clumsy idiosyncrasies of real conversation.

And, importantly, it privileges disaffected characters over action: particularly, characters who are stuck in what Monash University’s head of film and screen studies, Claire Perkins, calls a “protracted adolescence”.

“[Characters] in that post-college era … messing around, not really knowing what they’re doing, not being able to get their lives together.”

Similarly to mumblecore, ‘some of the most iconic Australian films have celebrated ordinariness’ – like Muriel’s Wedding
Similarly to mumblecore, ‘some of the most iconic Australian films have celebrated ordinariness’ – such as Muriel’s Wedding.

Mumblecore takes inspiration from predecessors such as French New Wave, she says – a genre that also formed a bedrock for Friends and Strangers. But as much as the Europeans have laid claim to this style of wistful, drifting insouciance, might we also find something distinctly Australian about mumblecore too?

“In terms of the action of mumblecore, it’s very every day, mundane – I think that’s quite Australian,” Perkins says. “Some of the most famous, iconic Australian films over time have really celebrated that ordinariness in a particular way.”

Like which films? “Muriel’s Wedding!” she instantly responds, alongside other classics which turn mundanity into both comedic and emotional goldmines: The Castle, Kath & Kim, Love Serenade.

For Steve Jaggi, whose film Chocolate Oyster premiered at Sydney film festival in 2018, Australian mumblecore is about reclaiming a period of life – your 20s – which has traditionally been misrepresented on Australian screens.

Born in Canada, Jaggi observed a disjunct when he first moved to Sydney.

“What it meant to be Australian was so disconnected from Australian television and films,” he says. “What I really noticed when I moved here … is that amongst all the people I met, there was a complete disdain for Australian content.”

Chocolate Oyster, then, was an attempt at closing the divide. Jaggi wanted viewers to see themselves in his film’s characters – a disparate group of friends, mostly unlucky in love, going through the motions and chores of life with almost entirely improvised dialogue.

“I think what mumblecore does incredibly well is reflect a time and place,” he says.

“Maybe that’s why it’s mushrooming here. More and more film-makers are saying, ‘Well, hold on. I’m not being represented.’

“The stories are inherently quite small, and in those stories you can explore very specific pieces of society.”

Vaughan agrees: the scale of Friends and Strangers, in all its low-stakes intimacy, allows for a narrative that speaks to a particularly Australian shade of alienation. “Looking at Australia, we’re a society that is quite dissatisfied with where the country has been going, what the future of the country is going to be.”

The film captures a generation who are “anxious and depressed and unhappy about their own situation, politically and socially”.

“It’s a national malaise.”

  • Friends and Strangers is screening digitally at 2021 Sydney film festival 2021 from 12 November, and is available now on Mubi in the UK


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