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8 Mumblecore Films to Scratch Your Rom-Com Itch

Photo: Maya Robinson

We near the end of yet another movie summer packed with superheroes, destroyed cities, and eye-bleeding special effects, and all that din and spectacle underscored what was, yet again, missing: romantic comedies. They used to be a summer staple, but big studios just don’t make rom-coms anymore, leaving the genre for the indies. So if you need a fix for a film that mixes jokes and kisses, may we suggest mumblecore? They’re not as candy-coated as your classic Kate Hudson/Sandra Bullock/Meg Ryan movie, and usually don’t feature the usual meet-cutes and opposites-argue-then-smooch beats; their production values are lower, and the dialogue is improvised or seemingly improvised and naturalistic. However, even though they are less formulaic, movies in this genre do feel like less glossy and eventful romantic comedies: They might not all have happy endings (though some do), but they’re definitely funny and quite romantic. Here are eight mumblecore or mumblecore-ish films from the last five years that might scratch that rom-com itch.

Audrey the Trainwreck, 2010 (Director: Frank V. Ross)
Audrey the Trainwreck tells the story of two late twentysomethings who are trapped in the routine of their dull lives as an ATM parts purchaser (him) and a courier (her), but find relief and inspiration in each other. The love story elements are thoroughly earned and cute, and the film is very, very funny. There are notes of The Office in its setting and tone, but it’s much more dry and true to life. Also, as is the case with many mumblecore movies, it features Nick Offerman in a small role. (Available through Ross’s website.)

Breaking Upwards, 2010 (Director: Daryl Wein)
Writers and stars Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones based Breaking Upwards on their own past attempt to wean themselves off of their relationship by trying non-monogamy. Though the actors’ breakup didn’t stick in real life (they’re engaged!), they used the experience to find humor in the tension of two people trying to split up when they don’t really want to. Lister-Jones, who was consistently the most enjoyable part of Whitney’s two seasons, is hilarious in it. (Currently available on Netflix streaming.)

Cyrus, 2010, (Directors: Jay and Mark Duplass)
Over the last few years, mumblecore directors have been starting to polish their aesthetic a bit and use more recognizable actors, without losing the genre’s looser feel. Cyrus was the first time the hardcore mumblecorers the Duplass Brothers, backed by Fox Searchlight, made a film with a reasonable budget ($6.5 million). (They used it to get a terrific cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener.) Plot-wise, it’s a pretty traditional love triangle, except it’s between a man, a woman, and her very creepily close son. (Available for digital rental on Amazon and Vudu.)

Drinking Buddies, 2013 (Director: Joe Swanberg)
Like Cyrus was for the Duplass Brothers, Drinking Buddies is Swanberg’s first foray into working with famous people and a budget. It stars Olivia Wilde and a bearded Jake Johnson as co-workers at a local brewery who are absolutely perfect for each other, but they are both in relationships (with Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, respectively). We don’t need to tell you how funny Jake Johnson is. (Currently available on VOD, and opening in limited release this weekend.)

Medicine for Melancholy, 2008 (Director: Barry Jenkins)
We should probably get this warning out of the way: Many mumblecore characters can be seen as hipsters. It’s a byproduct of the genre’s tendency to focus on the lives of arts professionals. The Before Sunrise–like Medicine for Melancholy, which stars Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins as two San Franciscans who spend the day together after a one-night stand, faces this issue head-on, by having its characters discuss the disconnect between being black and being indie. It’s also arguably the most visually stunning film in the genre. (Currently available on Netflix streaming.)

Open Five, 2010 (Director: Kentucker Audley)
Visually, Open Five is the most bare-bones of this list, which makes sense since it was shot by mumbecore big shot Swanberg. It brings an ambiguity that is echoed in the story of the romantic interminglings of a pair of Memphis friends who are visited by a pair of New York friends. Not a lot actually happens, but there is a great deal of romance and humor in the mundanity of their time spent hanging out. You can quickly get a sense of this, as both Open Five and its somewhat sequel Open Five 2 are currently available in full on YouTube. 

Red Flag, 2012 (Director: Alex Karpovsky)
Along with Offerman and Mark Duplass, another familiar face that often pops up in mumblecore movies is Girls’ Alex Karpovsky. This film, which he wrote, directed, and stars in, is about a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky who goes on a road trip to promote Woodpecker (a real film of his) after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend. It’s kind of like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but instead of Hawaii and surfing lessons, it’s the American south and a bird movie. (Currently available on Netflix streaming.) 

Your Sister’s Sister, 2012 (Director: Lynn Shelton)
Like Cyrus, at its core Your Sister’s Sister has a traditional love triangle; however, this time it’s between a guy, a girl, and her lesbian sister. The best mumbelcore movies benefit from a desire to watch charming people hang out, and Your Sister’s Sister’s cast fulfills that need, with Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt, and Mark Duplass. They spend scenes drinking and eating in a scenic Northwest cabin and you can’t help but wish you were there. The film also features one of the most frightening twists in recent memory.

8 Mumblecore Films to Scratch Your Rom-Com Itch