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An Introduction To NYC's Mumblecore Film Movement

Picture of Michael McGrath
Updated: 18 December 2016
Mumble what? Don’t worry, you haven’t lost your cultural edge — New York City’s Mumblecore managed to stay largely under the radar. It is a unique film movement that sprang up in the mid-2000s, influenced by indie film pioneers.

Mumblecore filmmakers look to the work of American indie pioneer John Cassavetes, British director Mike Leigh, and French filmmaker Eric Rohmer for inspiration. The accent is on low-budget productions driven more by character development than plot.

Mumble core films are produced in a lo-fi manner and often feature non-actors (including the filmmakers themselves). They use improvised scripts and natural settings. These films are typically comedies, dramas, or a combination of both.

The early features were initially rejected as they passed through the indie film festival circuit. They finally found a home at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival is Austin, Texas.

Andrew Bujalski’s first film, Funny Ha Ha, was shown there in 2002 and is now considered the first authentic example of Mumblecore. It was also in Austin where the name Mumblecore was devised, as festival insiders and critics had difficulty picking up dialogue due to the film’s poor audio quality. The screening was an immediate hit with audiences and critics, and a moniker was born.

sxsw | © jenn tx/Flickr
SXSW | © jenn tx/Flickr

Even if you haven’t come in contact with any Mumblecore feature, there’s a good chance you have indirectly been exposed to them. Hollywood and the premium cable channels took notice of these films and subsequently sought their talent. Several of their key figures starred in, produced, and created television series for HBO, as well as big studio films.

Considered by some critics as one of the most influential films of 2000’s, Funny Ha Ha (2002) launched Andrew Bujalski’s career. The movie’s relationship dynamics come apart at the seams, and flirting and rejection aren’t exactly as they appear. All of this is conveyed by language that people actually speak, a lexicon of “aaahhhs,” “uummms,” “because,” “buts,” “likes,” and “OKs.” His second film, Mutual Appreciation, was filmed in New York and followed this blueprint with similar results.

Lena Dunham’s writing, acting, and directing debut were so self-assured that industry professionals sat up in their chairs and took notice. Watching Tiny Furniture (2010) now is like sneaking a peek at the blueprint for Dunham’s subsequent HBO series, Girls. Dunham introduces us to her character’s world and presents us with what life is like for urban millennials. We follow her as she tackles maturity, identity, and relationships. Several of the actors from the film also crossed over to Girls.

Lena Dunham at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Supporting Characters | © David Shankbone/WikiCommons
Lena Dunham at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of ‘Supporting Characters’ | © David Shankbone/WikiCommons

The Puffy Chair (2005) was the directorial debut of brothers Mark and Jay Duplass. It is a refreshing take on the road movie formula. Mark’s character is given the task of moving a silly chair from Brooklyn back home down south. Following Lena Dunham’s lead, the Duplasses snagged a television series on HBO called Togetherness. The Puffy Chair holds the distinction of being one of the first films purchased directly by Netflix.

Director Lynn Shelton was a latecomer to the filmmaking world, breaking in with her feature debut at the age of 40. Her second film, 2009’s Humpday, was a big hit — that is, as far as Mumblecore movies go. Shelton was lavished with praise for its humor and daring: ribald sex farce comedies are rare in Mumblecore. Humpday made a big splash at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals.

Lynn Shelton | © Elen Nvrae/WikiCommons
Lynn Shelton | © Elen Nvrae/WikiCommons

New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie were all the rage with their second release, Daddy Longlegs (2009). The film is a character study of a morally compromised New York film projectionist. Audiences watch as he attempts to juggle his job, children, and personal relationships — while not doing a particularly good job at any of them. Daddy Longlegs was given coveted spots at Cannes and Sundance.

Some consider Frances Ha (2012) to be faux-Mumblecore. While its star Greta Gerwig was an original Mumblecore participant, the director Noah Baumbach was already established as a prominent indie director. It is, however, one of the best examples of the Mumblecore aesthetic — a tale of a directionless young woman who has difficulty finding her way through life as she bounces around from New York to Paris.

Terri (2011) is a charming comedy-drama directed by New York filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, and tells the story of an extremely heavy-set, self-conscious teenager attending high school. What sets it apart from the rest of the pack is its empathy and sweet humor. Terri made the rounds on the film festival circuit, garnering favorable reviews.