Andrew Bujalski, the filmmaker behind “mumblecore” touchstone Funny Ha Ha and tender workplace comedy Support the Girls, tackles unexpectedly embittered subject matter alongside unique pandemic challenges with There There. The writer/director’s latest is composed of six separate yet interconnected conversations between pairs of people: new lovers, an alcoholic and her AA sponsor, a teacher and her student’s mother, a techbro and his lawyer, a man and the ghost of his deceased loved one, a bartender and a sloshed customer. While these interactions involve personal revelations that give way to oft-heated exchanges, the raw emotions elicited between scene partners is conjured entirely through Bujalski’s own editing process. Shot during the early months of 2021 in compliance with low-budget COVID protocols, each actor’s scenes were filmed in near total isolation, often without even knowing who would be cast to play whoever it is they’re conversing with. In other words, one actor is There, another over There, never actually together.
The first segment is shared between two middle-aged lovers (Lili Taylor and Lennie James) who wake up after spending the night together for the first time. Viewers unaware of the film’s gimmick might not even notice that both actors never actually share the frame, but Bujalski’s intent isn’t to obscure this ploy. In fact, the character’s physical separation is all but embraced: with each reverse shot—technically, the entire film is reverse shots—the observation that the walls behind James are green while Taylor’s are white is increasingly impossible to ignore.
The dawning realization that these two characters will never share the same frame (and that the tryst they discuss in detail will never be alluded to with physical contact) evokes a palpable sense of sadness as well as confusion. As the duo talk through their feelings about the previous evening, they both become increasingly unable to understand each other. While James conveys that he had an amazing time and would love to see Taylor again (going so far to suggest he can call out of work and extend their date), she gets wrapped up in a self-pitying whirlwind about her age, suggesting that she’s much older than the women he typically takes home. The frustration inherent to their strained interaction is only amplified by the unseen chasm between both actors, both relaying their respective lines to iPhone lenses overseen by Bujalski’s regular DP Matthias Grunsky.
While this intimate (mis)communication feels solidly in the director’s wheelhouse, the segments that follow veer into an outright pessimism that’s seemingly at odds with Bujalski’s broader filmography. Sure, his characters might be melancholic and directionless, but they rarely espouse the type of vitriol that Annie LaGanga hurls at Molly Gordon’s meek English teacher during a parent-teacher conference-turned-confrontation. Aware that her son is snapping vulgar up-skirt pictures of his underage classmates that he then sells on the Internet, she derides the young teacher and holds her responsible for turning a blind eye. “I’m not a bad teacher,” she whispers with a sniffle. “Oh, honey, you are,” she replies. The exchange would be wryly funny if it weren’t so unnerving in its emotional bleakness, perhaps amplified by the use of everyday iPhone imagery that mimics the pedophilic pornography LaGanga’s son is peddling.
Darker yet is the interaction between Jason Schwartzman’s shady lawyer and the ghostly visage of his mentor Roy Nathanson. Not only does their discussion span a litany of depressing topics—Swartzman’s failing marriage, Nathanson’s grim funeral, fart-centric existential musings—but the scene itself is visibly dark, evoking a Caravaggio painting that’s somehow more muddled in its exploration of stark contrast.
“Fuck you for dying,” blurts Schwartzman in a closeup shot, his face lit by what appears to be a solitary bedside lamp. “Fuck you for the fact that we’ll never know what was going through your head, or the fact that we’ll never know what kind of pain you were in.” Without skipping a beat, Nathanson replies, “Oh, you’ll know. You’ll learn all about that.” Through the seamlessness of the film’s sound design, one can almost hear Schwartzman’s breath being briefly held, taken aback by the brutal sincerity of an all-knowing entity of the afterlife. “Are you just a projection of my subconscious?” he then asks flatly, somehow devoid of any Scrooge-like personal revelation.
Perhaps There There would have benefitted from these interconnected stories coming to a stronger narrative resolution (none of the characters ever come to realize that they are essentially a single degree of separation apart), but its bare-bones ethos also feels like a boon to Bujalski’s indie sensibilities. The anxious messiness of our present day and uncertain fate of our future are thoroughly embedded in the film’s fabric, a narrative preoccupation that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a cathartic conclusion. Still, There There may have felt more resonant had it come out last year during a COVID surge that thwarted so many plans to physically reconvene with loved ones for the holidays.
Despite the film’s pandemic-specific conceit, it never references the virus that forced the filmmaker to adopt this unique approach. Instead, what’s investigated represents many of our most pressing cultural reckonings: sexual assault, addiction, suicide, rampant misogyny. While many of us return to some semblance of pre-pandemic “normalcy” (albeit just one seasonal COVID surge away from another quarantine), Bujalski reminds us that there’s plenty to fret about and be frightened of in this world, plagues notwithstanding. Even when we can’t physically be together, we’re permanently connected by our roles in these crises—as perpetrators, victims or a squeamish combination of the two.
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Writer: Andrew Bujalski
Stars: Lili Taylor, Lennie James, Annie LaGanga, Molly Gordon, Jason Schwartzman, Avi Nash, Roy Nathanson, Jon Natchez
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan