What happens to film when you strip away money, stars, fancy locations and all the other trappings of big Hollywood movies? You can see for yourself in small independent films like LOL and Old Joy.

Some of these no budget films, dubbed “mumblecore” by the New York Times, get shown at film festivals and distributed through the filmmaker’s Web site. Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, by director Andrew Bujalski, as well as Puffy Chair by the brothers Jay and Mark Duplass can be funny, delightful and original.

Unfortunately for me, LOL, from director Joe Swanberg, left me cold. Is there such a thing as too naturalistic?

The main characters in the film – three men – use and abuse technology in their relationships with women. The e-mail, cell phones and text messaging they employ, predictably serve to screen them from actual human contact with its uncomfortable possibilities, like embarrassment and humiliation.

But LOL gets stuck feeling like an anthropological study of today’s 20-somethings. The dialogue rings true but unbearably bland. It’s not even tweaked enough to feel awkward or uncomfortable.

Instead, people’s lives just seem to go on and on and on. Maybe in a sadistic way, Swanberg is trying to slow us down. Maybe, Swanberg would even approve of my prescription: instead of renting a movie, talking on the phone or surfing the Internet, go outside and watch actual life for 81 minutes. You might have more fun.

My favorite recent small film is Old Joy, directed by Kelly Reichardt. The movie tackles the subject of friendship in a subtle and intelligent way. The story centers on two old friends, who decide to go on a weekend camping trip in the Oregon Cascade Mountain Range.

Old Joy also works as a coming of age story. Unlike most coming of age stories, which focus on the stage between childhood and adulthood, this film illustrates the relatively new phenomenon of latent adolescence creeping all the way into the 30s.

The two buddies Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) have finally, approaching middle age, reached a divergence in their paths. Mark, married and about to have a child, faces a future of responsibility and actual adulthood, while Kurt still clings to his ideals of complete freedom and complete self-absorption. Not content to let the other be different or change, the friends instead feel a creeping judgment against the other’s choices that prohibits them from carrying on as they were.

Director Reichardt knows the details of her story and nails them time and again, bringing a warm depth to this story of male friendship.


Old Joy: A

LOL and Old Joy are both currently available.