Tribeca 2018: “Duck Butter” is a Deliciously Radical Work

Directed by: Miguel Arteta
Written by: Miguel Arteta, Alia Shawkat
Starring: Alia Shawkat, Laia Costa, Mae Whitman, Hong Chau, Kumail Nanjiani, Kate Berlant, Lindsay Burdge, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Angelina Llongueras
Produced by: Mel Eslyn, Natalie Qasabian
Music by: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Additional Music by: COLLEEN, Nick Thorburn
Cinematography by: Hillary Spera
Editing by: Christopher Donlon

Alia Shawkat as “Naima” and Laia Costa as “Sergio” in Duck Butter. Photo credit: Hillary Spera.

Indulge me for a moment in a quick game.

First, you will need to start a timer. Now, identify for us – if you can – the most recent feature film to be released in theaters that was directed by a Puerto Rican filmmaker, co-written by him and a woman of Middle Eastern descent, starred that woman and four others of varying ethnicities in queer roles, produced by two women, and shot by a female cinematographer; or any film with even one of those people in one of those positions.

Once you’ve got something in mind, stop the clock.

Go back into your mental IMDB again, and this time, tell me (say that shit OUT LOUD) the last time you saw a movie produced, directed by, or featuring a Duplass brother. You might not even need the timer this go-around, because the answer may come instantly.

Compare times. My guess is that the differential will be drastic – perhaps infuriatingly so, if you’re anything like me – and the unfairness of it all will get you a little bit worked up.

It isn’t that the Duplasses, whose reputations are sterling and whose projects are always top-heavy with intelligence and charm, do not deserve credit. They are hard-working, talented, seemingly sweet men, and I honor their achievements.

Nonetheless, 2017 and 2018 have been nonstop whirlwinds of social-injustice-fueled-fury, and the increasing success of two straight white male directors in indie film doesn’t necessarily excite. The national blood pressure is running higher than ever in my lifetime.

Here, now, is the cinematic version of a statin.

To say that Duck Butter is a cure-all for what ails filmmaking culture is a touch hyperbolic, but it is deeply nourishing work, and will certainly serve as a palliative for some. Above all, it is a film of such radical money-where-your-mouth-is-ness that only the Tribeca Film Festival could have hosted its World Premiere (it did.)

Alia Shawkat, beloved of Arrested Development and Search Party, is astonishing in the lead role as Naima, a young queer artist living in Los Angeles. Naima, who goes by Nima, is so tightly wound that when she sleeps, her arms cross in front of her chest to shield her from the outside world.

There is some irony to the fact that she primarily works as an actor, a job which requires her to be present, attentive, and engaged in ways her personal life forbids.

Early on, we see that discontinuity tested when Nima receives the opportunity of a lifetime: a significant supporting role in a Duplass Brothers film (produced, like this one, by the great Mel Eslyn) opposite Kumail Nanjiani and Lindsay Burdge, who appear as themselves.

In a sequence of excoriating self-satire, Nima finds herself unable to rise to the Duplasses’ (Duplassim? Duplassen?) intuitive directing style, preferring to say her lines as written instead of improvising with the stars.

(Never have the brothers’ “it’s all good” attitudes seem more coercive or contrived than in these scenes, and both Mark and Jay – who also executive-produced the real movie – milk them for all they are worth.)

Agitated from the experience, Nima joins a friend (Arrested Development colleague Mae Whitman) at a neon-lit gay bar. There, she meets Sergio (the magnetic Laia Costa, moving into American film seamlessly after her breakout in Victoria), an intense, impulsive European singer; they dance, make love, and soon find themselves desperately unwilling to part ways.

So a pact is made: the women will spend 24 hours together, having sex every hour and talking about the taste of their respective smegma.

Long-time readers will recognize hints of Josh Radnor’s charming happythankyoumoreplease, in which two strangers decide to spend 3 days alone together, as well as some of the bashert thematics in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.

But Duck Butter is far more complex – and quite a bit less trifling – than its plot suggests, for reasons both of production and pedigree.

For one, its script is by Shawkat and the picture’s director, Miguel Arteta. Shawkat has proven adept behind the camera – she produces Search Party, and was the co-producer of Sebastian Silva’s 2015 masterwork, Nasty Baby – but Arteta is a more unpredictable commodity.

Once considered the great new hope of indie cinema, he never quite recovered the critical luster delivered by his first three extraordinary features: Star Maps (1997), Chuck & Buck (2000), and The Good Girl (2002) also known as the “Tim Blake Nelson’s Penis Movie.”

But with last year’s Beatriz at Dinner receiving acclaim after its Sundance premiere, Arteta has now delivered one of the great one-two punches in recent history. Undoubtedly, this is his best film in over a decade, and (somewhat shockingly) only his second credited feature script in two. It is a major comeback in feature storytelling.

Where Arteta’s years in the business come to bear most strongly is in his directing of actors. Here is where that pedigree comes in: with Costa, Shawkat, and the impeccably selected supporting cast – which includes the indispensable Hong Chau and Kate Berlant, both sadly underused as a couple with connections to Sergio – Arteta could not have gotten luckier.

All are in top form, but none quite so astonishingly as Shawkat, a shoo-in if ever there was one for a Gotham Award and perhaps an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.

She cries with an utterly convincing abandon – buggy eyes, hair-wrenching, nauseated frown – and inhabits the closed-off Nima without any of the undercutting or comic antics for which she has become famous. Years of smaller supporting roles in independent dramas like the venomous Green Room have turned Shawkat into a character actress, with the years written into her face, and this is among the most complex creations in her career.

Alia Shawkat in Search Party.

That is not to suggest that Duck Butter isn’t silly-funny – it is, mostly in its coruscating satire of white-male film culture and the faux-casual atmosphere associated with the Duplassians – but that is not its purpose.

Arteta and Shawkat don’t seem interested in a box-ticker film, either: queerness, women’s health, and inclusivity are all practiced onscreen as if they are unremarkable subjects to broach, rather than taboos that require some bravery to address head-on. This practice is itself remarkable.

None of that would matter, frankly, if the finished film did not seem commercially viable. In such a case, the movie would have its World Premiere at Tribeca, tour further festivals, and try to find its footing and audience with the streaming crowd.

That’s not a bad way to go, but it isn’t going to be the fate of Duck Butter. Because this is a movie that works on the heart, draws tears quickly and earnestly, features beautiful people fucking, and boasts extraordinarily lived-in performances, it has the capacity to do major business when The Orchard releases it theatrically and digitally.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to have a little taste of the future at these film festivals. Believe me: it tastes like mantequilla de pato, and it is goddamn delectable.

The Orchard presents the World Premiere of Duck Butter, a Duplass Brothers Productions film, in theaters April 27th

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