The Portland, Oregon, native Aaron Katz’s debut film, Dance Party, USA, was a canny, poignant slice of suburban D.I.Y. that earned the appreciation of, among others, Matt Dentler, the director of the South By Southwest Film Festival (at which the term “mumblecore” was coined by Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer). Katz’s sophomore effort, Quiet City, begins as many provincial-capital artists do upon arrival in rumpled indie HQ, that is, Brooklyn: a plane lands, and weekending Georgia girl Jamie (Erin Fisher, an aspiring filmmaker and college friend of the director) wheels her suitcase along the F train platform. She asks the nearest patch of stubble, Charlie (Cris Lankenau, in real life a sometime musician and night-shift phone operator at the Maritime Hotel), how to get to the Park Slope diner where she’s to meet her friend; add a subject-appropriate bit of contrivance involving a lost cell phone charger, and you’ve got Before Sunrise, with two appealing slacker-strangers playing versions of themselves alone together in a city. But while that 90s Amerindie thralled to Old Europe bohemianism and the intoxicating flow of talk, Quiet City sees Jamie and Charlie retiring to his kitchen table, hemmed in by piles of his roommates’ stuff, drinking the one bottle of wine in the apartment (a present from Charlie’s father: “My dad’s, like, kind of a wine nut… they all taste the fucking same to me”) out of mugs. Their talk, too, is guarded, the halting improvisations dappled with the caveats, qualifiers, and verbal placeholders that earned mumblecore its name. In the way of a demographic that plays dodgeball at concerts and holds spelling bees in bars, interaction is built on play: Jamie and Charlie keep the conversation going by working out a four-hander on a toy keyboard; later, she wakes him from a nap with an erector set, fiddles with the Nintendo, bounces a Superball on the sidewalk, and, arriving in a sunset-drizzled Prospect Park, challenges him to a race. It’s less childlike than it sounds: deconstructing the race afterwards, Jamie reveals, “I ran track in high school… but I’m out of shape now”— bracketing her play date with a set of wistful quotation marks.
Indeed, none of Quiet City can rightly be called immature, or solipsistic, or whatever is your preferred diminutive for friend-of-a-friend productions about aimless twentysomethings gabbing at Williamsburg gallery openings and loft parties. (“Aesthetically indifferent” is another; in fact, Quiet City’s hi-def autumn-in-New York interludes have an arresting classicism, effectively counterpointing the default mumblecore settings of stuffy apartments and overstuffed couches.) Katz & Friends’ understanding of social dynamics is too acute for the characters’ self-consciousness to read as navel-gazing; rather, these people are their defenses. Here’s Jamie, talking to an old friend’s new circle of urban acquaintances, one of many booby-trapped casual conversations: “Well, uh, right now, I work at, um, a restaurant… A chain restaurant... Applebee’s.” When Jamie and Charlie open up to each other, it’s to assess the communication breakdowns of their romantic relationships (borne out by a frustratingly circular check-in call from Jamie’s boyfriend). Theirs is an unconsummated rapport culminating with a simple gesture straight outta Wong Kar-wai; if the longings of Katz’s reluctant adults are still inchoate, they’re depicted with unfaltering eloquence.