'Duck Butter': A Relationship In Fast-Forward Keeps Nuance On Pause

Apr 26, 2018

Without getting into the particulars, the title of the lesbian romance Duck Butter refers to an unctuous medley of bodily fluids that might, say, discourage any further sexual engagement. For co-writer/star Alia Shawkat, who scripted the film with director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, Beatriz at Dinner), it's also a statement of purpose, a commitment to the down-and-dirty realness to come. True intimacy doesn't come from the perfumed scent of partners at their best, the film suggests, but from accepting the ripe odor of them at their worst—exhausted, moody, unkempt, and emotionally raw.

That's never a starting point for a relationship, because people always want to present the best possible version of themselves before revealing the more honest and vulnerable one. So in order to reach that place quickly, Arteta and Shawkat step on the high-concept gas: Skipping the getting-to-know-you phase, two young women agree to spend 24 straight hours together, having sex every hour. This is a much bolder experiment than your grandpa's 9½ Weeks and less organic than the time-compressed couplings in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise or Andrew Haigh's Weekend. They deliberately force themselves into this arrangement and will discover how they truly feel about each other at the end of it.

Duck Butter is about the romantic equivalent of spending the night in a haunted house in order to collect an inheritance. But it doesn't sound that way to Naimi (Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa), who have separate reasons for wanting to violate the unwritten rules of engagement and throw themselves into a relationship without caution. Almost needless to say, there's a reason why 24-hour lovemaking-and-chat sessions are not customary for new couples, but the premium the film puts on honesty comes at a cost. Though Arteta and Shawkat have trimmed the action down to 90 minutes, it nonetheless feels like breathing the same stale air that nearly suffocates them after a full day together.

None of this would have happened if Naimi had eaten onion rings convincingly. A struggling actress in Los Angeles, Naimi catches her first big break by getting cast in a Duplass Brothers movie, but she gets hung up on a stage direction and fails to click with the Duplasses' improvisatory style. Her inability to eat onion rings while staying "in the moment" triggers the thought that perhaps she lacks spontaneity, which in turn attracts her to Sergio, a singer who doesn't seem to think even a minute ahead. After an electric one-night stand, Sergio proposes the 24-hour idea to Naimi, who initially rejects it, but circles back to the idea after the Duplasses (playing themselves) fire her from their project.

So right away, the experiment is already tainted by Naimi's motives, which are less about getting close to Sergio than breaking out of a professional funk. Yet the initial excitement of getting to know each other's bodies and minds carry them through the first several hours, which are filled with great sex and funny stories and the buzz of real connection. But as day turns to night and back to day again, the flaws in their partnership start to assert themselves. Naimi tires of Sergio's manic, devil-may-care heedlessness and Sergio, in turn, grows frustrated by the emotional barriers that Naimi keeps constructing in front of her.

Duck Butter is a chance to witness the entire arc of a troubled relationship play out in 24 hours, but much like the endeavor itself, it sounds more appealing than it turns out to be. Shawkat and Costa are both fine actresses — the former familiar to fans of Arrested Development and Search Party, the latter starred in the recent one-take German wonder Victoria—but Naimi and Sergio's conversations are bereft of wit or compelling conversation. Sergio never seems like more than an imagined type, an exotic symbol of the liberated European, but the deeper problem is that the film mistakes intensity for truth.

Trying to pack an entire relationship in a 24-hour frame has a natural heightening effect, but Duck Butter is so insistent on finding the honest moment that it misses any kind of modulation. Which brings us back to the onion rings. The Duplasses ask Naimi to eat onion rings while a weighty scene plays out in front of her, perhaps as a sign of disengagement with a friend who needs her attention. She concentrates on the snack, but loses track of everything else. Duck Butter is plagued by a similar myopia. It's focused on the quest for intimacy, but misses the shades and colors that might give it dimension.

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