“Duck Butter” harks back to the earliest years of the Queer Cinema, “coming out” and “coming of age, sexually” dramas such as “Lianna” or “Go Fish.”
But it transcends those tentative first steps into the cinematic mainstream by foregoing many of the worn tropes of the corner of cinema, giving us a naive but wholly out and experienced heroine in search of herself and first true love, and maybe screwing that up the way she screws up much of the rest of her life.
Miguel Arteta did “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl,” and in star and co-writer Alia Shawcat, of “Arrested Development” and the TBS series “Search Party,” he’s got a collaborator willing to put it all out there and forget her comic crutches for an intimate, damaged and personal story packed into day and night of enforced intimacy with somebody who might “be the one.”
“I feel great about it!”
Shawcat is Naima, a young actress working the indie side of the street who might be getting her Big Indie Break. She plays a third wheel in an indie romance being directed by Mumblecore Kings the Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark (“Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Cyrus”) starring Kumail Nanjiani of “The Big Sick.”
And we get to see her blow it. Maybe it’s her inexperience, her lack of understanding of the heterosexual situation she’s been cast into, but her off-key rehearsals and implied arrogance at refusing the gentler-than-gentle direction the sweetheart Duplasses give her tell us this won’t work out.
But off-set, she’s met somebody who pushes that “blown big break” to the back of her mind. Sergio (Laia Costa of “Victoria” and “Piercing”) is a bracing, exotic and impulsive foreigner, an aspiring singer and free spirit who dances to a tune only she hears. She scribbles art, tries out songs at Oil Can Harry’s gay bar and has neither any visible means of support nor obvious talent.
Naima is smitten.
Social drinking gives Sergio the chance to expound upon her world view — “Do everything you want the second you want.” That might be a kiss, that could be something more profound. Sergio’s arresting idea for breaking the ice? “Skip time,” avoid all the dating and courtship rituals that trip up potential couplings. Spend 24 hours, eating, drinking, copulating and relating to the person you’re interested in.
No sleep. No closed door bathroom breaks. Sergio, we come to learn, has a thing about her excretory functions.
And Naima, who confesses “I’ve never actually gotten close enough to someone to love them,” is willing to give this a go. After, of course, she learns she’s lost the movie gig.
So they get together in Sergio’s How-can-she-afford-this? LA house, play with her dog, argue and get intimate — repeatedly — over the course of what feels like a make-or-break first 24 hours of their relationship.
The current cliches of young love movies intrude here and there. Of course, they get “real” while video chatting with each other across an empty room. The movie business tie-in is lazy, a cheap way to get the Duplass Brothers on board and another name (Nanjiani) into the credits.
The most obvious way “Duck Butter” ties into the traditions of its gender genre are the “how to” nature of the sex scenes, giving the straight world and youngsters just discovering themselves a clue about “How do they do it?” This isn’t “Blue is the Warmest Color,” but the intimate scenes are intense and explicit without being particularly titillating. Romantic? Maybe.
Arteta’s quiet and deliberate storytelling style lets us see the pitfalls facing this couple before they do. Whatever hopeful vibe is in play here, this Sergio chick is a bit of a nut. The first time she goes ape with her feces — she warns us about this habit– most potential mates, and viewers — will get the clue. “Maybe a little too ‘OUT THERE’ for me.”
Sergio reinforces Naima’s worst impulses — argumentativeness, egotism, giving free rein to her anger at a world that doesn’t owe her a career. Neither, I have to say, comes off as that likable. Can they not see this? Or is that kind of their type?
But the two leads make an interesting couple, not so much with peg-the-meter attraction or sparks-flying potential conflicts, as two women recognizing something they’re lacking and desperately, naively hoping to find it in the next available partner — each other.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic sexual and scatalogical situations
Cast: Alia Shawkat, Laia Costa, Kumail Nanjiani, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Running time: 1:37