Film Review: Duck ButterTwo fantastic performances anchor this indie drama about a lightning-fast relationship.
At times cloyingly precious, at other moments very sexy, Duck Butter succeeds on the talent of its two terrific lead actresses. What could have been a gimmicky conceit—two women who have just met decide to stay awake for 24 hours and have sex on the hour—remains mostly grounded, thanks to Alia Shawkat’s (“Arrested Development”) fearlessness and Laia Costa’s magnetism. Costa is the standout here, and Duck Butter is worth a watch for the introduction it provides to the Barcelona native.
Aspiring actress Naima (Shawkat) has just landed a coveted supporting role in a new indie from the Duplass brothers (who are also executive producers of Duck Butter). But she’s hindered by her inability to loosen up and be the “empathetic human being that is just receiving emotion” her new bosses want her to be. Her rocky first day on-set ends with a visit to a lesbian bar where she meets the free-spirited singer Sergio (Costa). At first resistant to Sergio’s proposal that they stay awake and have sex every hour for the next 24, Naima eventually agrees to the idea after things on the Duplass film go from bad to as bad as they could possibly be. Thus, for a full day, we watch Naima and Sergio talk, fight, make love, masturbate, pee, take Sergio’s dog for a walk, nod off, share a disastrous breakfast with Sergio’s mother and arrive at an emotional reckoning.
Duck Butter (a filthy, funny euphemism for feminine discharge) is directed by Miguel Arteta, the filmmaker behind the recent Beatriz at Dinner as well as The Good Girl and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. He co-wrote the script with Shawkat after they decided to probe what Shawkat calls “a toxic relationship” between two people who are clearly not meant to be, but who fall for each other all the same.
The film’s small scope and focus on exploring the minutiae of character over dramatizing events scream “indie,” as do the characters themselves: two would-be artists, well off, one who is more id, the other more ego, who both feel they have been messed up by their parents. To hear them tell it—and then, to meet Sergio’s mother—they aren’t wrong, but at times their navel-gazing results in the opposite of what I would imagine the filmmakers intended. Rather than leave us feeling as if we know these two characters as people, the fact that they are characters, or constructs, becomes even more apparent. It is as if we are listening to their backstories when they swap their memories.
Such a talky and intimate approach can work to excellent effect, as it does in Richard Linklater’s gold standard for the style, the Before trilogy, but the trouble in Duck Butter might be that when its leads discuss their parents or demonstrate their idiosyncrasies, their dialogue does not reach those transcendent heights of thought or feeling that is the talky film’s compensation for its lack of action. The characters here are well drawn, but they also feel conventionally drawn in what has become the standard quirky style of indie films.
That being said, both Shawkat and Costa are so good that even when the film feels the most like a customary “character study,” you want to continue watching them. Shawkat is unselfconscious and unafraid to be as frustrating as her character demands. Costa is luminous: funny, physical and unaffected. Their pairing elevates the material and makes Duck Butter worth trying at least once.
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