When it comes to the films released under the banner of Duplass Brothers Productions, I have found many of them to be fearless in the way they deal with intimacy and vulnerability. We come into this world feeling free and uninhibited, and then we get our hearts broken in a way which leaves a scar that never disappears. From there, we build up our defenses to keep strangers from getting too close because we don’t want our feelings getting gutted, and the thought of being vulnerable with another person can seem terrifying sometimes. Movies like “The Skeleton Twins,” “Tangerine” “The One I Love” and “Blue Jay” have dealt with these themes effectively, and they are presented in a very intimate fashion to where you don’t feel like you are watching a movie, but instead real life unfolding before you. It serves as a reminder of how much we want intimacy and of the euphoric highs and terrifying lows which come with it.
The latest Duplass produced movie to deal with this is “Duck Butter,” and if you want to know what its title means, you have to watch it to find out for yourself. Alia Shawkat stars as Naima, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who has just snagged her biggest role in a movie written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. But while Naima may find a certain freedom in acting, we see she is a bit repressed emotionally and has developed a bleak worldview as the daily news is filled with nothing but bad stuff like the inability of humanity to control global warming which, by the way folks, is very real. For those who do not believe me, please check out Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World.”
At night, Naima goes to a club where she meets Sergio (Laia Costa), an aspiring singer who is everything she isn’t: a free spirit who is open to taking risks the average person would be quick to avoid. Sergio asks Naima to dance with her, and it gets off to an awkward start to where Sergio has to shake Naima’s arms in order to get her to loosen up. I remember a female friend having to do this with me, and it did work in releasing the stiffness which has enveloped certain parts of my body. It certainly works between these two women to where they just fall into each other’s arms in a way which spells out how they have found a strong connection not easily discovered.
From there, Naima spends the evening at Sergio’s house with friends of hers, all of whom encourage Naima to come out of her protective shell and express herself freely. After that, the two of them are left alone with each other and make love in a way which feels not the least bit choreographed and totally authentic. Both discuss the dissatisfaction they have had in dating and romantic relationships which came to be destroyed by dishonesty. So caught up they are in their truly intense chemistry, they decide to spend the next 24 hours together, having sex every hour on the hour in the belief they can transcend the deceit which usually plays a part in most relationships.
Van Halen, when Sammy Hagar was their lead singer, once sang, “How do I know when it’s love?” Watching Shawkat and Costa here is to know, or so it seems at first. Their intense connection is intoxicating to witness, and I hope to discover it in my own life sooner rather than later. These actresses make their attraction seem not only real, but exhilarating. As a result, I really got caught up in their relationship to where I didn’t want to see it fail. But as “Duck Butter” moves on to its second and third act, you can sense things will fall apart to where you wonder if things can ever be made right again.
Like many Duplass Brothers Productions, “Duck Butter” was made on a very low budget and with a shooting schedule which never seems long enough. Movies can suffer as a result from these factors, but this one benefits from them as the two main characters are confined to whatever locations they end up at to where we feel completely stuck with them. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be seriously scary when things fall out of our control and understanding.
“Duck Butter” was directed by Miguel Arteta who cowrote the screenplay with Shawkat. He is best known for directing “Star Maps,” “Chuck & Buck,” “Youth in Revolt” and “Cedar Rapids.” Each of his films deals with the insecure relationships people have, and this one is no exception. I reveled in the connection Naima and Sergio have with one another to where I wanted nothing to come between them. But as the story rolled along, I sensed something would, and it made me both nervous and resigned to an inevitable fate the even the writers could not avoid.
Shawkat is best known for her work on the television shows “Arrested Development” and “Search Party,” and we are long past the point where we have to realize what a talented actress she is. Watching her take Naima from being a repressed individual to one eager to embrace the love she has found is entrancing. From start to finish, she makes Naima an individual desperate for a connection she feels has been denied to her, but she also makes us see a character who eventually comes to see how her own needs are equally as important as her partner’s.
I am not familiar with Costa’s work, but she did win the Lola, the biggest award one can get from the German Academy of Cinema, for her performance in the critically acclaimed “Victoria.” Costa makes Sergio into the free spirit many of us wish we could be, and she makes the character into a romantic force to be reckoned with as she tests Naima to come out of her protective shell more than she has already. Costa appears like such a free spirit to where I wanted to be swept up in her orbit, and this is even though speed bumps in this relationship felt inevitable.
What I admired most about “Duck Butter” was how emotionally naked these two actresses were. Whatever you think about the art of acting, this is not as easy as many think it is. Both Shawkat and Costa have to break down their own defenses to make the plights of their characters all the more real, and you have to admire what they pull off here as their emotions infect us in a way we are not typically prepared for. We revel in the chemistry these two have, but we also fear their intimacy will lead them down a path which will destroy it irrevocably.
Many may see “Duck Butter” as a gay relationship movie or a part of queer cinema, but we are now in a time where putting things into one particular category only speaks of a person’s limited worldview. The screenplay originally had a heterosexual couple instead of a homosexual one at its center, but the trials and tribulations of love are the same no matter what side of the sexual spectrum you reside on. This movie shows how love can be exhilarating and damaging all at the same time, and I was captivated by it from start to finish.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
“Duck Butter” opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 27, and it will premiere on digital formats starting May 1.