Frameland Recommends: Yeast

Yeast (2008)

Yeast (2008) provides a menacing tumble into an abyss where people pick fights instead of conversations. All the agitation doesn’t so much beat into submission but prepares a slide for a further descent into a social hellscape.

In her inexplicably only feature film director/actress Mary Bronstein creates a tale of communication breakdown even more harrowing than Frownland (2007), a film which had significant overlap in both theme and crew. Yeast follows the unravelling friendships of the controlling Rachel, played by Bronstein herself. Judging from an old videotape that Rachel tries to watch with rude roommate Alice (Amy Judd), the two were once friends before their mutual understanding became as putrid as the unwashed dishes that Alice keeps piling up in the kitchen. And Rachel’s best friend Gen, played overbearingly happy-go-lucky by Greta Gerwig, doesn’t provide respite when their camping trip widens a rift presumably started when Gen moved out of the city.

Each character has legitimate reasons to act agitated like a cluttered household but the annoyances run further than those ostensible causes. Bronstein withholds origin stories or ‘deeper’ motivations for behaviour. No curtain can be lifted on so-called underlying truths that propel the agitation forward. To probe the interactions here amounts to reflection on the character’s activity instead of discovery of their ‘essences’. It makes Yeast an unnerving, claustrophobic experience. The kinetic cinematography from the Safdie Brothers (who also make a brief appearance) lets the unpleasant behaviour usurp the screen. While Bronstein’s husband (who directed Frownland) Ronald’s deft editing refuses any establishment of setting, thanks to its turbulence.

The social fabric gets torn apart through the characters’ own doing. Each interaction amounts to picking a fight without any hero to root for. Rachel’s self-centred and moralistic approach to calling others out even before they have done anything makes any reasonable sympathy for her sometimes legitimate points disappear. Even though the cinematography reminds one of John Cassavetes’ work, the tension ultimately gets directed inward here. Instead of acting out their differences exuberantly like in Faces (1968), each character stays grumbling on their own solitary island lacking the capacity of self-awareness.

By commandeering each situation Rachel lets these slip through her fingers. Others turn out not to be puppets on strings to be directed. Mary Bronstein’s uptight clamour contrasts with Gerwig’s and Judd’s personae. The two seem like rebels against Rachel’s authoritarianism with Gerwig’s goofy passive-aggressive demeanour and Judd’s apathetic scoffing.

Just like in Frownland the inability of the main character to be aware of her shortcomings in communicating with others results in a harrowing finale. Rachel’s haunt through a theme park ties all loose threads with Alice and Gen together, staying lonely amid the rumble and tumble. Her communication breakdown turns from social horror into tragedy during her visit to a magic show wherein Alice stars as a freak (a real show that Judd worked for at the time), stumbling around while visitors around enjoy the opportunity to staple one of the freaks. Rachel wrote this tragedy herself unaware of her hand doing the writing.

But even though the social fabric got torn by the three friends themselves, the theme park reminds one that their environments didn’t provide much material to begin with. This way Yeast threatens complacency about the workings of loneliness as personal faults easily overcome even more.

This Recommendation article was published in April 2021