The title of “Beeswax,” Andrew Bujalski’s third feature, evokes the sticky medium of social insects and also the idioms of childhood speech. “It’s none of your beeswax,” say the queen bees on the playground, and just what is or isn’t someone else’s business is one of the questions Mr. Bujalski and his characters explore.
Another is the boundary between the grown-up world of real business — that hive of money, work and legal obligation — and the ostensibly less frenzied, more loosely organized realm of family and friends.
The focal point of the film’s inquiry, though it does not necessarily seem so at first, is the relationship between Jeannie and Lauren, twin sisters who live together in a scruffy postcollegiate section of Austin, Tex.
Jeannie runs a vintage-clothing store, and a simmering, unspecified dispute between her and her business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge), pushes “Beeswax” along its desultory narrative path.
Lauren, first seen casually dumping a boyfriend before the poor fellow is even dressed, bounces from one thing to another, a cheerfully noncommittal, low-key free spirit. She dithers over taking a job teaching English in Africa, double-schedules and forgets appointments and carelessly neglects to pass a potentially important message onto her sister.
Jeannie, who uses a wheelchair, shares with Lauren a certain guardedness, but while Lauren’s preferred defense is blithe laughter, Jeannie’s is a scowl and a sidelong glance. Her trouble with Amanda leads her to call on Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), an ex-lover who is studying for the bar exam. They start sleeping together again, but Jeannie is emphatic that he’s not her boyfriend.
The two sisters, played by actual twins named Tilly and Maggie Hatcher —Tilly is Jeannie and Maggie is Lauren — present a fascinating study in physical resemblance and temperamental contrast. They have similarly strong, asymmetrical faces, with deep dimples and wide cheekbones, and amazing arms. Mr. Bujalski, shooting in unassuming, hand-held 16-millimeter, is no ogler, but he can’t keep his eyes off those shoulders and biceps.
Jeannie, whose disability is neither mentioned nor pointedly ignored, is the more disciplined twin, and also warier and chillier around other people. “I’d say she’s a good friend, not a great friend,” she says to a lawyer, referring to Amanda, and this kind of fine distinction, as well as a tendency to couch negative judgments in neutral or positive language, is a hallmark of her way of expressing herself.
And not only hers. Mr. Bujalski, casting his films with mostly nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves and setting them in the 20-something bohemias of Boston (“Funny Ha Ha”), Brooklyn (“Mutual Appreciation”) and now Austin, has developed a highly refined ear for the idioms of his generation. His meticulous script for “Beeswax.” which magically transmutes into casual, spontaneous dialogue in the mouths of the performers, registers the different ways that “yeah” can mean no, and “I don’t know” can signify something like “I can’t believe how wrong you are.”
“Beeswax,” at first glance a modest, ragged slice of contemporary life, turns out to be a remarkably subtle, even elegant movie. Its leisurely scenes and hesitant, circling conversations conceal both an ingenious comic structure and a rich emotional subtext. Mr. Bujalski, who has been compared at times to John Cassavetes, at times to Eric Rohmer, has, with an anthropologist’s sympathetic detachment and a novelist’s eye, discovered some of the hidden codes and rituals that govern modern behavior.
Jeannie and Lauren, and Amanda and Merrill as well, come across as low-affect, easygoing people. But watching them negotiate the complexities of work, siblinghood and romance, you realize that they — and maybe the rest of us too — exist within a strict regimen of social expectations. Everything’s cool, but that turns out to mean that it’s not O.K. to express strong feelings, or to disagree too intensely, or to risk shame, embarrassment or unpleasantness. We are all free to do what we want but not necessarily to know what we want.
And these rules impose a reticence that is both frustrating and intriguing to watch. The obvious knock on Mr. Bujalski is that his concerns are too small, his palette too narrow. But though there is an attractive dishevelment to his visual and linguistic style, he is at heart both a perfectionist and a serious anatomist of manners and morals — and an artist who knows his business.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written, directed and edited by Andrew Bujalski; director of photography, Matthias Grunsky; produced by Dia Sokol and Ethan Vogt; released by Cinema Guild. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, West Village. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Tilly Hatcher (Jeannie), Maggie Hatcher (Lauren), Anne Dodge (Amanda) and Alex Karpovsky (Merrill).