Miguel Arteta makes squirm-inducing movies. His 2000 comedy-drama “Chuck & Buck” is a classic of uncomfortable cinema. Last year’s “Beatriz at Dinner” was also awkward — and rather nasty. His latest film, “Duck Butter,” which he co-wrote with bisexual actress Alia Shawkat, who stars and produced, is equally disconcerting. The film, which had its world premiere in the past week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is now in theaters ready to polarize audiences.
Naima (Shawkat) is an actress who is excited to start work on the latest Duplass brothers film. However, in her first day on set, she does not mesh well with her co-stars. Later that night, she accompanies her friend Ellen (Mae Whitman) to a lesbian bar. When a female singer named Sergio (Laia Costa) asks Naima to dance, the possibility of romance hangs in the air. After the women connect deeply and spend most of the rest of the night together, Sergio asks Naima to impulsively give over her next 24 hours to drinking juice with her and having sex every hour. Naima begs off, but circumstances prompt her to return the next day and go through with Sergio’s wild proposition.
“Duck Butter” mines most of its humor from the two young women’s interactions. Naima talks about feeling free, and Sergio encourages her to act on those feelings. That leads to them having sex in public while walking Sergio’s dog, but it also involves Sergio hitting Naima in the face with a bag of dog shit to get a reaction out of her.
In a movie that takes its title from the women’s discussion about smegma, such is the nature of the characters’ behavior. Naima and Sergio spend their screen time listening to and playing music, eating and drinking, having sex — and they talk and talk and talk. The big question is: Are these characters and their actions interesting? The answer is maybe. Or rather, occasionally.
“Duck Butter” asks viewers to spend 93 minutes with Naima and Sergio, and at times these women will grate on their nerves. That may be the point — Arteta is not aiming to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy here — but even Naima takes a personal time-out every so often to go hide in the bathroom just to gather her thoughts about what Sergio just did, or said, or wants.
The film’s rambling, episodic nature works both for the story and against it. Viewers get to learn more about Naima and Sergio as they get to learn more about each other, and their discussions about getting caught masturbating, their anger toward their mothers, and the men who treated them badly are revealing. Still, it can be hard to get a full sense of them even as some of their insecurities bubble to the surface. When Naima is prompted by Sergio to send a nasty text message to the Duplass brothers about a professional issue, it’s just plain juvenile.
Scenes that capture the two women being honest and real are more successful. Sergio reacts negatively to a broken hairbrush, which seems extreme but does tell a lot about her character. When Naima speaks an uncomfortable truth at one point, it changes the atmosphere in the room. The film is best during such dramatic moments. A fight the couple has results in a brief silence between them. Unmaking a bed together, the two women are stubborn and put their guards up. It may be the most enlightening scene in the film.
Arteta films “Duck Butter” in an intimate style — not unlike the Duplass brothers’ trademark mumblecore films — that gives it a naturalistic, documentary-like feel. The women may be exhausted from their 24-hour experiment, but some viewers will tire of them long before that. Others, however, will be riveted by the power shifts between the women. When Sergio’s mother visits, a perceived slight soon has Naima exacting payback on the woman who has intruded on their privacy.
Arteta and Shawkat ask viewers to repeatedly recalibrate their opinions of the characters, both of whom can be unlikable. The uncomfortable elements in the film are the most authentic and the hardest to watch, but at times there are hints they are also contrived. The film suffers from a seemingly improvised style that is not fleshed out enough to sustain its few emotionally powerful moments.
Shawkat gives a strong performance as Naima, who is a sympathetic character despite her foolish decisions. Laia Costa makes a good foil, and the couple’s sex scenes are appealing. All this, however, is not enough to make “Duck Butter” any more than intermittently entertaining
DUCK BUTTER | Directed by Miguel Arteta | The Orchard | Opens Apr. 27 | Village East Cinema, 189 Second Ave. at E. 12th St. | citycinema