Duck Butter (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Landline (2017)

Obvious Child, the first collaborative feature from director Gillian Robespierre & actor/comedian Jenny Slate, was a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing bomb-thrower of a film. Robespierre snuck a realistic, formally honest drama on addiction & abortion into American theaters under the guise of a safe, by-the-books romcom. Slate’s persona in the film as an aggressively juvenile stand-up comedian made the experience even more sharply pointed, as it at least vaguely mirrored her own life & art. Unfortunately, I cannot report that their reunion for an Obvious Child follow-up is anywhere near that striking in concept. Detailing the lives of a family in crisis in the mid-1990s, Landline sidesteps the deeply personal politics of Obvious Child to tell a much more familiar, universal story. Slate’s natural persona is still allowed to inform her character, but it’s also diluted by a larger ensemble, including turns from indie scene notables John Tuturro, Jay Duplass, and (MVP) Edie Falco. There’s no real hook to Landline the way Obvious Child’s “the abortion romcom” elevator pitch is immediately distinctive, but Slate & Robespierre still manage to extend the fiercely honest sensibilities of their first collaboration into this less thematically confrontational territory.

A frustrated NYC teen (Abby Quinn) struggles with her idealistic sense of home life & self-identity when two dual acts of adultery disrupt her familial structure. Just when she discovers her playwright father (Tuturro) is likely cheating on her eternally stressed mother (Falco), her adult sister (Slate) also begins an affair behind the back of her fiancée (Duplass). The two sisters & their mother form a solid trinity of female perspectives that dominate this narrative, but the heart of the film lies mostly in the teen’s struggle to negotiate the balance between the ideal of honesty and the fact that the truth could destroy someone. She acts out in frustration, turning to recreational drug use & delinquency to enact a sense of control and starting petty name-calling bouts with both her her sister & mother. These insult trades can range from the harmless (“tattle tale,” “irritant”) to the bitterly harsh (“Fuck you, cunt!”), but order is gradually restored to their dynamic as the two romantic affairs naturally work themselves out. Huge, life-changing mistakes are made impulsively & with fervor and the teen at the center of the storm is petrified of repeating earlier generations’ follies at the expense of people she loves. (Honestly, introducing this family to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson would be super beneficial in dispelling her fantasies about the private, romantic lives of East Coast intellectuals). Ultimately, though, familial bonds prove stronger than short-term resentments and everyone emerges a stronger, more forgiving person on the other end.

The most striking choice for Landline, stylistically, is its story’s 1995 setting, which thankfully extends beyond nostalgia markers like floppy discs & Oprah to touch on the historical drug addiction issues & limited forms of communication that shaped the era. The tagline “1995 – When people were hard to reach” is much tidier than the movie’s treatment of internal, familial conflicts of communication & honesty, but at least points to how the setting was integral to tapping into the film’s themes. The 1990s timeframe also allows for a wildly varied soundtrack ranging from Steve Winwood’s embarassing “Higher Love” to The Breeders’ delicate delight “Drivin’ on 9.” You can tell Robespierre employs the same cinematographer as she did for Obvious Child (Chris Teague), since interior spaces in both films visually share a kind of lamp lit intimacy, even if Landline is less thematically aggressive in its treatment of adultery as Obvious Child is in its politically casual look at abortion. There are moments in Landline that register as emotional devastation (“I’m flailing,”) and others that aim for broad, dark comedy (a Jewish character receiving head during a weepy drama about Nazis). The temporal setting & Robespierre’s tendency towards brutal honesty set the stage for both ends of that divide to hit with full impact, although they’re contained in a much more familiar, well-worn story than the one told in her debut.

-Brandon Ledet