For a few years now, I’ve been trying to find a common theme in the works of writer/director Miguel Arteta, and I think it comes down to capturing rebellious spirits in all their dissimilar forms. Across such films as Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids, the short-lived HBO series “Enlightenment,” and most explicitly and exceptionally in last year’s Beatriz at Dinner, Arteta wants us to know that personal revolution isn’t limited to the young. It can arise in middle-aged men stuck in the rut of their lives, middle-aged women in dead-end job and broken marriages, or even in new-age massage therapists.
Arteta’s latest work, Duck Butter, co-written with star Alia Shawkat, is about the search for truth in a relationship. It follows two women who have just met, who decide to set aside the lies and masks, opting instead for a crash course in the other person by agreeing to spend 24 hours in each other’s company in the hopes that immersion and exhaustion will result in unfiltered honesty and perhaps even the beginnings of love.
Shawkat plays Naima, an aspiring actress who has just landed her first sizable role in an indie film, which just happens to be the latest work from real-life filmmakers (and Duck Butter’s producers) Mark and Jay Duplass. (The movie within a movie stars Kumail Nanjiani in the lead role, and I really want the Duplass brothers to make it for real.)
These early, on-set scenes are important because we learn right away that Naima is not good at letting go of her process or letting the scene go where it takes her emotionally, which is key to the Duplass brothers’ style. She even debates with them over lunch about why their filmmaking process doesn’t work for her, and it becomes clear that this collaboration is doomed to fail. That night, she goes out with her friends (Mae Whitman and Hong Chau), where the performing band allows Sergio (Laia Costa from the insane 2015, on-take German thriller Victoria), a young singer from Spain, to play a song with them. The song doesn’t turn out that great but something about it really appeals to Naima’s no-compromise attitude.
The two end up spending the night together, and when Naima gets ready to leave to go back to set in the morning, Sergio comes up with the idea of spending 24 hours together. Naima is tempted, but is smart enough to realize being in a Duplass brothers film is a big deal. But before she arrives to the set, she gets word that, not surprisingly, she’s been let go from the film.
With her slate suddenly clear, her first instinct is to head back to Sergio and the grand experiment begins, with fascinating results that range from intimacy on an epic scale to abject terror because Sergio is probably manic-depressive and likes to poop in unexpected places to get people’s attention.
Not unexpected in an Arteta film, the casting is crucial and flawless, and Shawkat (who first came to light as Maeby Fünke in “Arrested Development”) is perfectly balanced as a woman who has chosen to work in a field that requires an amount of emotional openness, yet has trouble revealing herself who this woman she’s having sex with at least once an hour (as part of the 24-hour pact).
The two women not only explore each other physically, but they attempt to dig deeper into one another’s past and the events that shaped and damaged them. Sergio is a little easier to figure out in some sense because she hides nothing and seems to have a clear sense of the things in her personal history that made her the loving, caring person she is…when she’s not raging and destroying things.
A visit by Sergio’s mother for breakfast is perhaps the most telling moment of their day together, and witnessing how quickly she picks apart Sergio’s confidence is like watching a demolition crew set charges in just the right structural pillars of a building to send it falling straight down to the ground. It’s a beautiful sight, but it’s still a total tear down.
Although the film is primarily a hesitant love story, it wouldn’t be an Arteta work unless there was pain and ugly self-awareness at its core, so that the characters can actually learn something from this experience, whether or not they end up together in the end. Duck Butter is an odd movie, anchored and made great by sincere and painful writing, as well as two superb, often quite funny and raw performances that are among the bravest I’ve seen so far this year.
The film arrives on most digital platforms on May 1.