Starting in the early 2000s, mumblecore helped keep independent filmmaking afloat amongst a growing slate of big-budget blockbusters. But what is mumblecore? How did it begin, and what’s the state of it now? Anyone who is a fan of the Duplass Brothers will want to keep reading because we’re diving into the history and influence of the mumblecore film movement.
What is Mumblecore?
Mumblecore background and style
Mumblecore is not even 20 years old as of this writing. However, it’s already gone through significant changes. Before we dive into the origins some of the noteworthy films of this ultimate DIY movement, let’s begin with a quick definition and characteristics of mumblecore.
What is Mumblecore?
Mumblecore is an independent film movement that originated in the early 2000s. It’s often characterized by naturalistic acting that’s occasionally improvised. The plots generally focus on a group of people in their 20s or 30s dealing with terrible jobs or bad relationships.
The term wasn’t officially coined until 2005 at the SXSW Festival when Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and Jay & Mark Duplass all had films with similar characteristics. And, yes, “mumblecore” is supposed to be lowercased despite being a genre of film.
Mumblecore had numerous influences, including the French New Wave and reality TV shows like The Real World. Some more of the prominent figures of the movement include Greta Gerwig, Lynn Shelton, Aaron Katz, Ry Russo-Young, and Jeff Baena.
- Naturalistic dialogue and performances
- Non-professional actors
- Heavy use of improvisation
- Low budget
- Filming in real locations
- Shot digitally
- Plots usually revolve around trouble articulating desires and problems in romantic relationships
The Mumblecore Film Movement
A brief history of mumblecore
There’s a good reason the mumblecore film movement emerged around the early 2000s. This is when DIY filmmaking became more readily accessible. Video cameras were affordable and software, like Final Cut Pro, could be used by anyone with a Mac.
It’s for this reason many early mumblecore films had budgets of less than $1 million. Andrew Bujalski, widely considered to be the “Godfather of Mumblecore” set the template with his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha. In this interview, he describes how they didn't set out to start a film movement.
It just happened.
Funny Ha Ha centers around a recently graduated woman who’s trying to find a temporary job while trying to win the attention of her college friend, who’s in a relationship with someone else.
This type of aimless plot would become the standard for many films in the genre with characters whose main motivations are often as simple as wanting to tell someone how they really feel.
Embracing DIY techniques
90s movies like Slacker and Clerks definitely influenced mumblecore filmmakers of the 2000s. But the beginning of a new century gave way to a unique style of filmmaking that became adopted by this new group of directors. Typical conventions were thrown out the window in favor of a more indie/punk rock aesthetic.
In the beginning of the movement, directors couldn’t always afford the best equipment, so the films have a rough edge around them. For a better sense of this, watch the trailer for 2005’s Mutual Appreciation.
You can hear every little sound. Every footstep. Every crinkle of a prop. Sounds other filmmakers may leave out are left in to create a more natural world where people don’t always have the smoothest actions or know what to say.
That leads into the next characteristic: improvisation. The 2016 Joshy is more of a post-mumblecore film (more on that later), but director Jeff Baena filmed the entire thing without writing a traditional screenplay. Instead, he made a general outline, so while he knew where the story needed to go, the actors were left to fill in the blanks.
This typically leads to lengthy dialogue scenes and moments where characters talk over one another extensively. It feels real, like how real people would speak and react, which doesn’t always lead to one person talking immediately after someone else finishes. You can see that at work here in this scene from Joshy.
This type of dialogue works well with typical mumblecore plots, which are often simple. Most movies in this genre feature aimless 20-, 30-, or 40-somethings just trying to make their way through life. People entering adulthood can relate to someone just needing to find a job while making a relationship work.
The loose camerawork combined with natural-feeling dialogue helps make these movies feel like you’re watching people you know. You can see these trends in action in the very best mumblecore movies.
What is Mumblecore Today?
The evolution of mumblecore
It’s a lot harder to answer the question, “What is mumblecore?” these days because it just isn't the same. The movement has evolved in interesting ways over the last decade — many critics believe the true movement ended around 2010 when the initial batch of directors moved onto bigger projects.
For example, Andrew Bujalski, who started the movement, directed Support the Girls in 2018, which has a more noteworthy cast, such as Regina Hall in the lead role.
Since 2010, a new batch of post-mumblecore directors have filled in the gap. These directors include Alex Ross Perry, Amy Seimetz, Alex Karpovsky, and Sean Price Williams. Their films tend to be more polished around the edges as a result of larger budgets. They also feature more recognizable actors like Jason Segal starring in Jeff, Who Lives at Home or Anna Kendrick in Happy Christmas.
While the films have better video and audio quality, the plots remain largely the same. For instance, Jeff, Who Lives at Home follows an unemployed stoner looking for meaning in life. That fits neatly into the traditional mumblecore plotline.
What is Mumblegore?
Don't forget about mumblegoreAn interesting subgenre has also come out of this movement: mumblegore. As the name suggests, these are horror films that subscribe to the typical mumblecore aesthetic, which entails heavy improvisation and the use of non-professional actors. Of course, horror films are usually more plot-driven than your typical mumblecore film. Some great mumblegore movies to check out include You’re Next, Murder Party, V/H/S, Creep, and Frozen.
Best mumblecore movies
There are dozens of mumblecore films out there. Which ones should you watch if you want to adopt the aesthetic for your own film? Luckily for you, we’ve collected the best mumblecore onto one list, many of which are available on streaming services. Even watching a couple of them could inspire your next film.