Are Mumblecore Movies Relatable or Just Boring?
Examining a Subgenre of Indie Filmmaking
During the pandemic, many consumer trends changed, some temporarily and others permanently. One particular uptick was younger people tuning in to YouTube live streams of lo-fi hip-hop. Loosely defined, lo-fi (low fidelity) hip hop is a music genre that consists of short, downtempo, repetitive beats meant to give a raw, unpolished sound. Rather than mixing and mastering to create clean audio for mass consumption, producers leave the static, feedback, and other aural imperfections in. The style stems from both the desire for a more authentic sound and the limitations of the artist’s recording equipment. As a genre, lo-fi hip hop’s raw sound and down-to-earth feel not only create a sense of nostalgia and heart but also hope, particularly for anyone that does not have the means to record on high-tech gear.
What does this have to do with film? Lo-fi hip hop has its doppelganger in the world of film with a subgenre that many cinephiles call mumblecore. This label describes movies in the independent space that contain imperfect dialogue, naturalistic acting, and minimal budgets. Much like lo-fi, the genre was born out of directors’ lack of resources and connections to shoot more polished, grandiose productions. Over time, it became a preferred style for some romantic comedy (rom-com) filmmakers. Once a handful of directors succeeded in gaining traction with these films, the movement over time attracted more familiar faces and increased budgets for the filmmakers themselves.
In addition to bigger name actors gravitating towards such projects, the familiar faces already in the mumblecore space became household names. Mark Duplass, a mumblecore mainstay as both actor and director, starred in the popular FX series The League and Apple TV+ hit, The Morning Show. Adam Driver played a supporting role in 2012 mumblecore favorite Frances Ha before going on to star in both small screen and big screen productions, such as episodes VII and VIII of Star Wars. Not to be outdone, the star of Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig, just directed one of the top grossing movies in cinema history, Barbie.
I must say, if you were cool at all growing up, you probably won’t relate to anything you see onscreen. The films are called mumblecore for a good reason. There is a lot of staring at feet, “I dunno,” and unnecessary apologizing. At some point, you may shout at the screen, “Just say something! Anything!” The characters in this genre wear their neuroticism around their necks. Their mannerisms and speech reflect the same lack of assurance reflect their feelings about the direction their lives are going in (or not going in). Your late teens and early twenties can certainly be a confusing and scary time, and for some people, it is hard to break out of their shell.
The portrayals of aimless characters serve as a reflection of where most twenty-somethings are mentally. Knowing your life path at that age is admirable and reassuring, but it takes many people a decent amount of time to figure it out as they gather life experience. In mumblecore movies, the characters typically get around to voicing some of their insecurities or uncertainties, likely reminding viewers of their own sentiments at such an age. For instance, in the 2014 Lynn Shelton indie, Laggies, Keira Knightly’s 20-something year-old character, Megan, panics after her boyfriend proposes and hides out for a few days at a teenager’s house. At one point in the film, Megan utters, “I'm sure it does seem kind of stupid to make some sort of rigid plan for the future. But... It's stupider not to start paying attention to who you are and what makes you happy. Otherwise, you just float.” Her aside is both relevant to the plot and a message for twenty-somethings watching the film to process.
Despite, or maybe even because of, their technical imperfections, mumblecore movies have received critical acclaim on the festival circuit. Many originators in the mumblecore genre earned recognition from critics and audiences alike. Drinking Buddies, directed by Joel Swanberg, won Narrative Spotlight at SXSW in 2013. Girls creator Lena Dunham’s first feature, Tiny Furniture, won numerous festival awards, including Best First Screenplay at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in 2011.
Plenty of criticisms of this style could be voiced by…well, critics. One particular critique is that the movies do not have enough conflict from scene to scene. When you show awkward teens and tweens hanging out and struggling to have conversations, the story is lacking an antagonistic force. Nothing is stopping the characters from getting what they want, since at times, they don’t even seem to want anything. Traditional Hollywood movie plots rely on goal-oriented characters striving to achieve something, which is how the audience finds them endearing. Watching a 25-year-old with no hopes or dreams could frustrate a viewer who wants to root for him or her.
Furthermore, the element of imperfect dialogue can be cumbersome for audience members to endure. It is certainly truer to real life, as we don’t all have perfectly timed exchanges, quips, and witty responses to one another. True conversations are rarely as rhythmic as the ones we witness onscreen and often just trail off. However, movies are entertainment, and a conversation with no flow to it becomes either boring or uncomfortable.
Despite these perfectly valid bones to pick with mumblecore, any criticism can have pushback. If you sit down to watch a slice-of-life film about characters and relationships, what better way to display them than through imperfect dialogue and occasional conflict? Most of us are not constantly at odds with those in our social circle; if so, it may be time to do some vetting. When meeting new people, we often try too hard to make an impression, straining to say something relatable, speaking out of turn, or making a joke that falls painfully flat (I just got a shiver thinking about something I said 15 years ago to break the silence). It may not be the height of entertainment to watch characters do the same for 90 minutes, but one could argue this flaw is as endearing as any buttoned-up character could exhibit. Mumblecore movies likely won’t offer the same escapism as Mission: Impossible, but they can bring about nostalgia and appreciation for the struggles of young adulthood.
A harder critique to push back against would be the exclusivity of the mumblecore subgenre. Often, the main characters and their priorities tilt heavily toward a middle-class, white-collar perspective. The protagonists may be “broke,” but they are generally college educated and have parents to support them, whether they are part of the story or not. Generally, they have no one financially dependent on them and no dire concern relating to their situation (i.e. getting evicted). Most mumblecore characters seem as though everything is going to work out for them, which makes each of them a little less of an underdog. That said, many films and television shows follow exceedingly rich people who are petty beyond belief and somehow still endearing to the audience.
Additionally, as the community of mumblecore filmmakers can be somewhat insular, the projects often lack racial diversity among both the main characters and the communities in which the films take place. One notable exception is the 2008 indie Medicine for Melancholy, starring former The Daily Show regular Wyatt Cenac, about two San Franciscans bonding over their status as minorities in a city being gentrified. Its director, Barry Jenkins, went on to direct the Best Picture winner Moonlight, further illustrating what a great foot in the door this genre provides for aspiring filmmakers of all demographics.
Mumblecore has proven over the years to be somewhat malleable, as it extends beyond slice-of-life comedy. An offshoot of the movement has coined the phrase “mumble-gore,” indie movies with the same types of characters and dialogue but in the horror genre. One such unsettling movie is the 2014 Mark Duplass hit Creep, where a videographer drives to a remote location for a gig and meets a strange man who wants to make videos for his unborn son (or so the videographer thinks). Sometimes, mumblegore movies will have several silent or one-actor scenes that later culminate in extreme violence, such as Blue Ruin (2013). Other times, these projects feature similar conversations between characters as the comedies, except the nerdy or awkward character is actually a lunatic. They can go in several directions, but the common thread is the same minimalistic feel.
Some might wonder what the future of this subgenre holds. It is likely to continue evolving, especially since as smartphones evolve, more creative and motivated people have the technology to make something. One can only hope that the plots expand to include more perspectives, as that is the best way for any movement to continue growing. As for the other criticisms, they are all a matter of taste. Maybe heavily rehearsed dialogue, fancy set designs and top-flight visual effects are too perfect for some. In any case, mumblecore provides us with more of the variety we always seek in our entertainment.