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MOVIE REVIEW

Observing the mundane, 'Mutual' finds the sublime

The frustration with loving some filmmakers is that you're disappointed when their work doesn't quite catch on with an audience and the director spends his career as a critics' pet. I pray this doesn't remain the case with Andrew Bujalski, the director of "Funny Ha Ha," a piercingly true romantic comedy that languished needlessly for years before finally getting a brief release last year.

The future of Bujalski's terrific, equally low-key second comedy, ``Mutual Appreciation," seemed uncertain, too. Afraid that it would never get a proper theatrical release, I ordered a DVD copy from the director's website at the beginning of the year. But lo, the film has found a distributor and opens today at the Brattle for a week before moving to the Coolidge.

Shot in the kind of grainy black and white that looks best in a theater, the new movie conjures another tale of the young, nervous, and stammering, although the shots and beer drinking in the first movie have expanded to wine and pot. The laughs are bigger, too.

Alan (Justin Rice) has just moved to New York from Boston with no actual plan beyond scoring success with his band (it more or less consists of just him). Acutely sensitive, he's coasting on a wave of expectation and the belief that, contrary to his father's opinion, anything can happen to him. But nothing too exciting ever does, which is a boon for the film, since Bujalski's strength as a director is framing the mundane as it happens in the world's bedrooms, living rooms, and coffeehouses. ``Mutual Appreciation" appropriates a seemingly improvised vérité style that's ideal for a cast of characters of no tremendous ambition.

When Alan, his best friend, Lawrence (Bujalski), and Lawrence's girlfriend, Ellie (Rachel Clift), sit around and talk about, say, the mole on Lawrence's rump, the content of their conversations is secondary to the scene's ability to make you feel like you're in the room, too. A lot of the exchanges feature cutting remarks that the characters hear and respond to. The talk is often random or inconclusive, yet Bujalski is keen about how some dialogue resonates. After the newly arrived Alan tells Lawrence, who has offered him a place to sleep, that he has another living arrangement, Lawrence casually says, as though certain suspicions had been confirmed, ``You can always find a benefactor." And Alan is momentarily insulted. These two have an ambiguous bond that makes Ellie a little nervous. She's not alone. At one point, a group of young women assume Alan is gay.

At times, this picture feels like a slimmed down Jean Eustache film or an extremely modest variation of Francois Truffaut's ``Jules et Jim." You're forced to wonder what more money or a bigger vision might have produced. While it's true that the characters here have slim ambitions, you consequently have to wonder -- even while remaining devoted to his uncannily subtle skill with character -- what else Bujalski has up his sleeve. A panning shot, perhaps?

``Mutual Appreciation" is his first New York film (``Funny Ha Ha" was set in Allston), and the world he's captured is true to Alan's hipster dreams and indie-rock goals. The character's emotional dial is set on ``emo," which means he lacks the social constitution to articulate himself. He's passive, aimless, and occasionally narcissistic. See Alan unhook himself from Sara (Seung-Min Lee), a cute radio DJ, without it costing him her brother, who's his temporary drummer. And watch as he carries on a flirtation with Ellie, who's also attracted to him. Her emotional intelligence, however, is superior. The women in ``Mutual Appreciation" are confident and direct. The men can be exasperatingly meek.

``Funny Ha Ha" was about a stalled 20-something and her romantic entanglements. (The woman who played her, Kate Dollenmayer, has a too-small part here.) ``Mutual Appreciation" is the second chapter in what seems like Bujalski's statement about people trying to find the right words as they move toward adulthood and negotiating their fears of commitment of any kind -- to a job, a person, or a complete thought. He could have called this movie ``A Tentative Yes." Of course, that title should do nothing to stop you from making an absolute commitment to see this film.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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