One of my favorite kinds of onscreen stories are ones where characters feel compelled to remain in a cramped, increasingly violent social environment that’s obviously toxic from the start. It’s a narrative device I’ve previously defined as “The Party Out of Bounds” and it’s one that leaves a lot of room for variation in the reasons why its menacing parties never end. The cause of characters lingering in vicious environments can be practical (It’s a Disaster, The Invitation), supernatural (The Exterminating Angel, mother!, High-Rise), or just emotionally masochistic (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Bigger Splash). Rarely do the films focus on the compulsion itself though, choosing instead to explore the consequences of the tension it generates. The recent indie comedy/romantic drama Duck Butter subverts that genre expectation by constructing a toxic social scenario where characters feel compelled to dwell long after the vibe sours, then questioning the source of that compulsion & what it indicates about the characters’ emotional lives & the nature of romance at large. It also pairs quiet, awkward comedy with intimately explicit sex, making the audience feel trapped right in the room with its troubled co-leads.
Alia Shawkat (who co-wrote the film with director Miguel Arteta) stars as a prickly, Alia Shawkat-like actor struggling to find her place on the indie cinema scene. After crashing & burning on an improv-heavy film shoot with Mark & Jay Duplass (who produced this film, naturally), she turns to a woman she recently picked up at a lesbian bar for emotional support, getting more than she bargained for. Her new love interest (Victoria’s Laia Costa) is a maniacal free spirt, the unhinged Dharma to her uptight Greg. In their early hours of infatuation, they enter into an absurd sex pact in an effort to get to better know each other, speeding up wasted months of courtship. The agreement is to have sex once an hour for 24 consecutive hours, something that seems plausible when they first intensely lock eyes. The result is the couple rushing through the entire life cycle of a romantic relationship—from the lustful honeymoon period to meeting parents to decrease in sexual attraction to total emotional meltdown to personal growth at the inevitably sour end. It’s a sweetly funny story, but also a bitterly traumatic one where both characters must confront the basic reasons why their respective romances always end in ruin. Sleep deprivation amplifies both their failings & their admirable qualities and the whole night swirls into a chaotic mess of fart jokes, passionate love, deep personal confessions, and belligerent slogans shouted at the moon.
The conceit of staging an entire romance over an intimate 24-hour exchange is brilliantly simple, since the frayed mental state of staying up all night with a new romantic partner offers the film an interesting character dynamic that can be filmed quickly & cheaply (in true Duplass tradition). Shawkat, Arteta, and Costa attempted to authentically convey that sleep deprived logical looseness by staying up all night themselves, filming the entire 24-hour sex pact sequence on a 27-hour shoot with two rotating crews. The results pay off, informing the film with a loopy kind of desperation that cuts past social niceties to uncover elusive truths & hidden anxieties. That’s the exact quality that drives me to watching a good Party Out of Bounds story in the first place, since the act of lingering in a social environment long after it’s comfortable tends to lead to a spectacular breakdown in basic civility. In Duck Butter, that breakdown calls into question why we linger in a very specific kind of social experience long after it sours: romantic entanglement. The film is enjoyable enough even without that idea at its core, bringing in always-welcome players like Kumail Nanjiani & Mae Whitman for bit parts and gleefully interrupting its intimate sexual exchanges with sophomoric poop jokes, but it’s that rushed, mentally-strained examination of romantic relationships & emotionally masochistic compulsions that makes it a worthwhile experiment.