After living in New York City for three years, I finally made it to the Tribeca Film Festival. The first movie I got to screen was Duck Butter, co-written by Alia Shawkat, fabulously funny and talented since her teen years on Arrested Development. As a longtime Shawkat fan who shares not just her birth year but a love of the arts, I felt more than a smidge cheerleader-y as I settled down to watch her latest creative endeavor.
The plot is simple enough: Naima (Shawkat) is a tightly wound, socially conscious young actress who finds herself smitten with Sergio (Laia Costa, Victoria) after they meet at a club. They’re not much alike – Sergio boldly rushes the stage to sing her own original music, while Naima is content to argue with older women who share her table about the state of U.S. politics – but both are yearning for honesty, intimacy, and affection.
Eventually, they decide to share an unusual experience – to stay awake and in each other’s company for 24 hours straight, having sex every hour, and being totally real about their thoughts and feelings. After all, they muse, it’s not like traditional dating guarantees blissful romance or lasting love. Maybe it could be the most beautiful thing they’ve ever done.
At a glance the premise sounds steamy, titillating even, but when it unfolded, I found there wasn’t much that was truly erotic about it. Sure, there are moments of sweetness, passion, and real connection. But, there are also awkward conversations, shouting matches, chores, napping, and exhaustion-crying. And while I was hyper-aware of Naima’s commitment issues from the very beginning, eventually I realized that (underneath her Manic-Pixie exterior) Sergio has her own baggage to deal with, too.
As one might imagine, the movie is almost entirely conceptual. With simplistic dialogue and meandering plot, it feels about as experimental as Naima and Sergio are trying to be. It’s probably not one for the history books. Still, it left such a warm spot of admiration in my heart after it was all said and done. There are some special and beautifully ambitious aspects of the project that endeared me, and not just because it was my TBFF debut.
Shawkat shines both as a performer and a creator. Costa is filled to the brim with energy and life, and is a pure joy to watch for 90 minutes. The camera is free of the Male Gaze, and most scenes feel cozy and even sort of hectic, like I was actually in the room while it was being filmed. I personally found myself really appreciating the casual moments of surprisingly refreshing, non-sexual nudity – like when Naima meanders topless to the fridge to find something to eat. As anyone with a body knows, most nudity in life is actually pretty boring.
“You’re the first people to see this EVER!” crowed Director Miguel Arteta to the room before the lights went down. And to bookend that honor, we also got to participate in a short Q&A with some of the team after the credits rolled. That was when I found out a few factoids that made me respect the movie even more.
Like how Shawkat and Arteta had initially begun by auditioning men for Sergio’s role, but couldn’t help give the role to Costa after she blew away all the boys with her enthusiasm, vulnerability, and outright game. Or how the script, while carefully paced and directed, included no written dialogue for the actors before filming began – resulting in organic conversation, highly personalized character development, and ad-libbed interactions. Or (especially for fans of Victoria) how the 24-hour sequence in the story was ACTUALLY filmed in 24 hours by the cast & crew! (I knew those exhaustion tears seemed real.)
Duck Butter is many things all at once. It’s visionary, yet familiar. It’s unfettered and binary-breaking, yet its themes and questions are timeless. I saw the weaknesses, quirks, and beautiful parts of my friends, myself, and my family written on the faces of these two characters who are just trying to learn how to trust and feel.
Maybe you will, too.