How to Speak “Mumblecore”

4 REV Hannah Takes the Stairs
IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Greta Gerwig starred in director Joe Swanberg’s film.

Sundance recognizes the “indie genre” just as it is coming to an end.

The mumblecore movement is speaking a lot more clearly these days. By programming work from Joe Swanberg, Michael Tully and Todd Rohal — filmmakers largely identified with the newest indie subculture — Sundance seems to have declared the mumblecore aesthetic ready for the indie mainstream. But does that signal the evolution of the movement, or does it stick a pin in its relevance?

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” Sundance programming director Trevor Groth says. “The films that those filmmakers made this year, we the programmers responded to. It wasn’t any sort of calculated response.”

A fixture of the Austin-based South by Southwest Film Festival since 2005, mumblecore has defined a loose grouping of do-it-yourself films whose main characteristics are heavy improvisation, super-low budgets, a focus on character and relationships over plot and a cast of nonprofessionals. Its champions saw its casualness as a badge of honor, and its critics dismissed it as amateurish navel-gazing. The Duplass brothers’ The Puffy Chair and Baghead; Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation; Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA and Quiet City; and Ry Russo-Young’s Orphans became hallmarks of the subgenre originally championed by Matt Dentler during his tenure as SXSW producer.

At first, many of the filmmakers bristled at the mumblecore tag, but then an informal collaborative was born as they met at SXSW each year and began contributing to one another’s work. They began to benefit from the attention. By 2008, new filmmakers were applying the label to their own movies.

“From my point of view, it’s been annoying at times but always 100 percent beneficial,” says Swanberg, 29, whose first five films weren’t accepted by Sundance. But his sixth, Uncle Kent, made the cut and was snatched by IFC Films, which has distributed much of the mumblecore output including Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. “It would be so wrong-headed of me to adopt any attitude toward it other than gratefulness because I’ve watched so many filmmakers with really good work try and find an audience,” Swanberg adds. “And in 2007, all it took was a stupid word and a loose concept, and suddenly all of us were finding an audience for really small, not-commercial work.”

But now the mumble corps is moving on. Last year, standard-bearers Mark and Jay Duplass directed the scripted Cyrus, starring Jonah Hill. This year’s Sundance films from Rohal and Tully — The Catechism Cataclysm and Septien, respectively — hardly fit the mold. And as other filmmakers whose work bears only a tangential resemblance — such as Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), Katie Aselton (The Freebie) and Lynn Shelton (Humpday) — are grouped under the mumblecore umbrella, its meaning has been further diluted.

“Uncle Kent is Joe evolving as a filmmaker,” IFC head of acquisitions Arianna Bocco says. “It’s not really mumblecore; it’s a much more adult film. I feel like Sundance missed that mumblecore movement. But the fact that they’re embracing Joe is a tribute to Joe’s evolution as a filmmaker and to Sundance saying, ‘We think that you’ve grown, and you’re a good fit with Sundance.’ ”

Swanberg certainly hopes so. Noting that the mumblecore label has gone “from a funny buzzword to being a really dirty word that you would only call a film you hated, then back around to being just a descriptor,” he says that now “it is something that a few of us will probably carry around forever.”