Mumblecore’s Place in Cinematic Realism

In 2017, Greta Gerwig’s feature film Lady Bird, the coming-of-age story of the titular teenager’s tumultuous relationship with her mother and her last year in a Sacramento high school, was released to rousing acclaim, garnering numerous award nominations and victories. Gerwig was praised especially for her script and direction, efforts she states were influenced partly by her own experiences as a high-schooler in the early 2000s, if only by a margin (“Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life,” she said at a New York Film Festival press conference, “but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know”). A lesser known fact is that despite being a mainstream breakout for Gerwig as a director, a greater authority than her collaborations with Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha and Mistress America, Lady Bird is only her first solo director credit.

2007’s Nights and Weekends bears her name alongside Joe Swanberg, a pivotal filmmaker born out of the mumblecore movement, the name given to a subgenre in independent film in the mid-2000s that put the naturalist behavior of young people before more traditional plot-oriented techniques, allowing large room for improvisation. It was just the actors, usually friends of the director who was likely acting as well, and a single video camera, capturing everyone in the midst of an aimless life, like the ones they were dealing with in real life. The films document the mood of being college grads in post-9/11 America with the utmost authenticity. This is where Gerwig first emerged in film, first working as an actress in Swanberg’s films, her most favored being the lead in Hannah Takes the Stairs. The creative influence of her long involvement with mumblecore is clear, felt from her works with Baumbach to going alone with Lady Bird, which turns the clock back from post-grad to the transition from high school to college.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2005)

Like Gerwig, Swanberg managed to break into a mainstream mold, operating the anthology TV series Easy. This path is a constant for other mumblecore figures: Mark and Jay Duplass with Togetherness, and Lena Dunham’s hit show Girls, both of which ran on HBO and were heavily influenced by their roots. This explains only part of a large market in which films and television produced by millennials where a vérité style is applied to a loose story that mirror’ the creator’s own life and events. Some are more autobiographical than others (Aziz Ansari and Noël Wells’ respectively address being struggling comedians with Master of None and Mr. Roosevelt), and in the realm of cinema, they can’t all be true to life down to the letter. Names are changed, more drama is added, but the mundanity and emotional connections are made priority.

2018 has given us a fair amount of content of the same vein, including comedian Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade being hailed for its realistic portrayal of middle schoolers. While the characters may be classified as Gen-Z, it also is reported as Burnham dramatizing his own experience as an awkward young person, and the struggles of social anxiety. This film may hold the key to such a recent influx, as it still carries the weight of being ultimately personal, despite the protagonist being a girl compared to Burnham as a 28-year-old man. These films function as starting points for their directors, and even its cast. Working on a freshman effort induces a moment of self-reflection, and looking back in one’s own life for inspiration is a common practice. All the insecurities come to light when one can be aware of their limited resources, and the universal truth of feeling a crisis when growing up or getting older, facing the real world as it is, might be harkening the creators to reach out to an audience of the same demographic.

Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture received a Criterion release in 2012, the first of her contemporaries to get the privilege.

Granted, there are examples of these films that either don’t achieve as much or can be considered as total failures. Joe Swanberg is no victim to one of his many features being scoffed at for being superficial or unaffecting, and Dunham’s Tiny Furniture‘s status as a release in the Criterion Collection is one of ridicule in the community of its collectors, often considered among the worst the home video distributor has ever offered. The film is certainly a weaker entry into mumblecore, and suffers from the various faults of a first-time director, but it is a functional example of the genre. Taking after the philosophical youth musings of Eric Rohmer and John Cassavetes’ vérité sensibilities, mumblecore is just one stage in the long history of film reaching a combination of character-based intimacy and observational cinema. Why would’t Janus Films want to secure the rights while they’re hot, when the pioneers of the subgenre are among the most successful and acclaimed annals of contemporary cinema and television art?

The leap from making films on a weekend with non-professionals to prime-time showrunners and Oscar nominees is a large one, and the journey that led to a style that dominates a certain section of American independent film is just as ambitious. Oversaturation is bound to rear its ugly head, and the formula that similar films apply to become a major flaw, thus loosening the impact of works like Skate Kitchen, or Jonah Hill’s debut Mid90s. It’s all relative to the skill set a filmmaker has, and whether they have the sensibilities to go above the “post-mumblecore” aesthetic, and draw new insights and understanding from the work it produces. Anything from following an underrepresented group to subject matter less or never touched on in that context could go a long way. It’s been the main appreciative points for American Honey, a film not even directed by a millennial, but carrying a romantic notion of young disenfranchised people trekking the country.

What shouldn’t be taken for granted is the style in itself. That’s a reason for the appreciation the style gets, but trying to seem more authentic and real instead of embracing the artificial nature of film can go so far. There’s great works on both sides of the spectrum, but to be an invested feature on the former is to approach it with the ambition and nuance it deserves. The one way to make realism more appreciative is to extend to several mindsets, and pick more brains. Mumblecore started as a necessity for creation, and now it’s the foundation for what regularly appears on best of the year lists.Think of the possibilities when future filmmakers take our current work to heart.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Thu Kemp

    Decades ago, when my wife was teaching drama and scriptwriting (formal scriptwriting), she made a couple of indie films. After all the formalities of scriptwriting and filmmaking as most of us know it, she’s excited to make a mumblecore film. There’s a structure to it. A sanity and a beauty in the chaos. If you just allow yourself to sit back and get drawn into a good mumblecore film, you’ll see the genius.

  2. Interesting… The stories are often sly parodies and can be seen as self-conscious statements on youthful solipsism

  3. quentin

    From what I can tell, “mumblecore” movies involve under-motivated white 20somethings moaning about iPhone batteries running out or rivalries caused when the guitarist in their amateur alt-rock band gets the same tattoo as they do.

  4. Perfect timing for this article as I was looking for some new films to check out. I was wondering – are films like Napoleon Dynamite and Juno and the like considered mumblecore in any way?

    • Sal Stack

      Nope, not at all. The term ‘Mumblecore’ doesn’t represent anything meaningful other that it describes the work of a group of people from the same area who started making no-budget films, often in conjunction with one another; it only gained traction ’cause a couple of the films unexpectedly started to make noise at film festivals and the people who report and work those festivals needed a hook to make that noise comprehensible. People within film – at least on the production and promotion side – are always looking for the next trend; ‘Mumblecore’ was, briefly, on a small scale, one such trend and, as such, more the fabrication of those such people rather than the people who actually starred in and made the films. Napoleon Dynamite is a million miles away from mumblecore, save for the occasional bit of gross-out/awkward humour, usually involving a Duplass brother or two. Juno is closer in spirit and execution to some of the sweeter, better mumblecore pics, like Cold Weather and Medicine for Melancholy, just don’t expect anything like the same polish.

      • Perfect timing for this article as I was looking for some new films to check out. I was wondering – are films like Napoleon Dynamite and Juno and the like considered mumblecore in any way?

        Cool, OK. I am fascinated by this sort of lo-fi lackadaiscal artistry. I remember in the early 90s there was this “slacker” culture knocking about. It was a nice, slow-paced alternative to the hi-energy raving that was going on all around us, and while that was cool too, sometimes it’s nice to sit down on a sofa with a cup of whatever and not bother to articulate anything more than the first syllable of a suh … of a suh … of a blah-blah.

  5. Every bone in my body is telling me I won’t like this. Especially at the mention of Greta Gerwig.

  6. Really liked Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs, The Puffy Chair and pretty much all the Duplass stuff. Hated The Color Wheel though.

    Personally I think Tim Heidecker’s The Comedy from 2012 did for so-called Mumblecore flicks what Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 did for 90s misunderstood male loner indie films: killed ’em by sharp satire.

  7. I thought this was going to be an article on Marlon Brando.

  8. Velasco

    While mumblecore has to be the most extraordinarily annoying ‘word’ I’ve heard for ages, I really enjoyed reading your take on it.

  9. badnick

    I loved The Puffy Chair. I think it had a real honesty and warmth to it.

  10. Ok Ziegler

    What’s so revolutionary about Mumblecore? I don’t see it as any being very different from Richard Linklater’s Slacker made almost 20 years ago, or the first few films by Jim Jarmusch in the early ’80s. More than a revolution, it’s a tradition going back to John Cassavetes’ Shadows half a century ago.

  11. Considering the subjects in these films seems to be the clueless, stupid, and self-absorbed, it may make sense that the films are amateurish, lazy, and pretentious.

  12. Roseline

    Soooo…BAD is the NEW GOOD. THEN becomes something to rebel against…so becomes the new BAD…which is the new GOOD!? I’m too old for this…

  13. A cinematic style/genre that makes me want to gouge eyes out and pour acid into my ears!

  14. Krystina

    Huh. I was reading up about mumblecore the other day.

  15. Great article. It’s often only in hindsight that a cultural movement comes into focus. Whether your reflections on mumblecore’s ultimate influence ring true remains to be seen. I, for one, appreciate learning a new word, as strange as it sounds, and also having a few more indie films to add to my list. For that, I thank you.

  16. I can honestly say I have never heard of any of the films mentioned, never mind watched them.

  17. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    A great discussion, thanks for the insights!

  18. I thought Ladybird was a below average film and did not deserve to be among the other entries.

  19. Mumblecore is more like a sub-sub-genre. It’s a slice of the light day-in-a-life dramas. That category encompasses some great works, but mumblecore is always so self-indulgent and rather myopic. That’s not to say it’s a great starting point for new writers and filmmakers, but you should probably experience a bit more life before making it into art (if that art is to stand the test of time).

  20. Cool analysis. Big fan of the mumblecore genre in general as well as most of the directors and movies mentioned in the article. I appreciated the insights here.

    One thing I was surprised by was the mention of “Tiny Furniture” and the flack it got for its inclusion in the Criterion Collection. I didn’t know it had this kind of reputation. I vaguely remember watching it quite a few years back and thinking it was decent enough. As I can’t exactly remember a whole lot about the movie though, a re-watch may be in order. My curiosity is certainly piqued in regards to the fuss it appears to have stirred up.

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