I have a love/hate relationship with mumblecore, usually pulling towards hate, but at its foundation, the values of mumblecore are easily celebrated. The films tend to squeeze the most out of their very low budgets, using real locations, limited soundtracks, and a lot of improvisation, or at least ‘real-sounding’ dialogue.
Character-wise, they focus on singles in their late 20s, usually stuck in a loop, and who are often unable to make the necessary life changes to join society at large. The most successful mumblecore films often hinge on the particular idiosyncrasy that sets the lead character apart. Bujalski’s FUNNY HA HA, often regarded as the first mumblecore film, follows Marnie searching for temp jobs and trying to fight her own rampant alcoholisms (the trappings of college-life). In David Gordon Green’s ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Paul is an awful womanizer who falls for his best friend’s virginal sister. Joe Swanberg’s LOL follows three recent college grads who obsess over technology, either conducting relationships by cell phone, stalking chat rooms, or watching the screen of the laptop while involved in intimate encounters.
One of my central concerns with mumblecore is that characters never change, and nothing happens. Many mumblecore defenders would say that’s the point. Fine. So then the success has to be quantified by the originality of the journey (or loop) of the character. One of my favorite mumblecores is the Duplass Brother’s PUFFY CHAIR, a road trip to deliver a lazy boy chair to the main character’s father. It’s trio of characters, all frightfully unfit to enter the real world, stumble along an almost eventless van ride of small stakes and slight disagreements to finally arrive, maybe one notch further in their development, but with a new understanding of each other and their lost childhood.
Jiyoung Lee’s FEMALE PERVERT chronicles another completely socially awkward character, searching for redemption. Phoebe is a video game designer whose creation allows the player to yank out their male victim’s body hair or pop pimples. It’s the sort of completely unnecessary app that could only be designed by someone with no concept of human interaction. Her day job is working on a team advocating strategies for youth, appealing to corporations obviously poorly designed to do so. She joins a book club to read the great works of kinky fiction, and finds everyone a bit vanilla for her taste. Every date she goes on, ends badly, with her asking one boy to play her Theremin with a sex toy. I had a chance to speak with writer/director Lee about her film in Park City shortly after it’s premiere.
FEMALE PERVERT doesn’t so much end as the lead character just peters out. Having her advances rebuffed time and time again by all the men in her life, she finds her first joy babysitting a neighbor’s kid. By the end, the only change she seems to have made is to try less, to be less sociable. “I think before the end of the story, she wanted to fit in with society, connect with people,” Lee explains, “but in the end, she feels she should accept herself and try to adapt into society without being noticed too much.” So does the film become a sort of uplifting message about conformity? “Exactly,” Lee beams.
The greatest strength of the film is the lead actress, Jennifer Kim, a recurring star on the new Amazon series MOZART IN THE JUNGLE from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. Her spirited performance, and her willingness to throw herself fully into the absurdity of Phoebe’s world helps carry FEMALE PERVERT. “I first met her at Slamdance in 2011,” the director says, “she was supporting another film and I connected with her on a human level.” After coming across her again in a late night Adult Swim infomercial called “Your Hole” with Michael Ian Black as a spiritual guru, Lee knew Kim had the comic chops to take on the lead role. “She was an audience member who was really crazed about him and ran up on stage and hugged him,” she explains, “she had no spoken lines but I recognized her because I know her. She made me laugh and she had no dialogue, just her expressions that made everything happen.” Kim also fit the physical qualities for which Lee was looking for the role. “I didn’t want a tall, glamorous female to play [Phoebe],” she says, “I wanted her to be more unassuming, like Winona Ryder in Heathers, slight, cute and you don’t expect her to be so dark.”
Lee is not necessarily willing to admit Phoebe has a bit of herself in the personality, instead pointing to Beavis and Butthead, and Kenny Powers from EASTBOUND AND DOWN as inspirations, saying if they hit on you in real life, it would be really creepy, but also kind of funny. “Also GRAND THEFT AUTO V in general,” she adds, “because when you play, you’re doing all of these terrible things but you want to do it and get rewarded for it.”
It is this brash disdain for morality that gives FEMALE PERVERT its original feel. No one can deny that Lena Dunham’s success, and the visibility of the mumblecore movement, have encouraged more stories about female sexuality than ever before and even created opportunities for women, such as Lee, to tell those stories. “I don’t think there is a stigma as much as its hard to get funding for those kind of stories,” she says, “funding is the hardest part of independent film making, in my opinion. A female telling a story about sexuality may be a hard sell with people with lots of money wanting to risk money. Hopefully if one of the female sexual stories becomes successful, there will be more people willing to invest in female filmmakers who are trying to tell those kind of stories.”
For me, the central comparison is that there are a whole lot of scenes (small, contained scenes) where there is a lot of conversation, but most of that conversation doesn’t necessarily affect the actual outcome of the story. Lee agrees: “I guess I’m more about ‘the character’ than like actual ‘action’ or like ‘the arc.’ One way she sees FEMALE PERVERT standing apart from mumblecore is in its complete lack of introspection. Whereas sometimes these mumblecorps spend so much time think about what they are doing rather than doing it (as in HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS should really be “Hannah Considers All The Options For Getting To The Roof, Tries a Few, Then Settles For Staying Home”), FEMALE PERVERT is impetuous and almost infantile. “FEMALE PERVERT is a rebellious film in the indie circuit,” Lee proposes, “because — I’m not saying anything bad about it but – a lot of films tend to be the introspective type, social justice and politically conscious things, which is all great in film festivals. I think my film is a little more, in a good way, slightly juvenile.”
I’m not sure the kind of life FEMALE PERVERT will have after Slamdance, it is certainly not a film for everyone. Despite Lee’s protestations, this is pure mumblecore and the ending is thoroughly unsatisfying. Despite its incredibly short running time (63 minutes), the film often feels like it is going nowhere. Several scenes start strong but sort of linger on past necessity. Kim is fantastic, and brings real charm to Phoebe, who otherwise would be unwatchable, but the rest of the cast is pretty unpolished, bordering on awful. The film looks quite good for this low of a budget, with effective camera work and production design, but too much time is spent on dead end plot points with little resolution. Still, Lee shows a lot of promise for coming up with quirky characters and situations, and of course, titling. She is definitely a filmmaker to watch.
Jiyoung Lee’s FEMALE PERVERT next plays Atlanta Film Festival, Friday March 27th.