Review: Alia Shawkat Rightly Won the Tribeca Film Festival Best Actress Award for Her Work in the Lesbian Romance 'Duck Butter'
Opposites attract, but can they last? Alia Shawkat explores that question in the romantic drama Duck Butter, which she stars in (and for which she won the Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival; you should check out Kristy’s Tribeca coverage here) and co-wrote with director Miguel Arteta (of Youth in Revolt). Shot over the course of 24 hours, the film is an engaging look at an off-handed suggestion between two lovers early in their affection for each other: Could they spend 24 hours together?
The film begins with Naima (Shawkat), an actress excited to book a job on a Duplass brothers film. But she’s so in her own head, so overly critical of what others are doing and so unable to go with the flow, that she alienates fellow actors Kumail Nanjiani (a guest judge with his wife Emily Gordon on this week’s RuPaul’s Drag Race!) and Lindsay Burdge. Naima is weirdly attached to using onion rings as a prop in the scene; she keeps ignoring advice from Mark and Jay Duplass; and it’s clear that her interiority is a deterrant to most people.
But that somewhat unknowable quality of Naima’s — what is she really thinking? — is what piques the interest of Sergio (Laia Costa), who seems free and open in every way Naima isn’t. At a club later that night, she gets onstage and sings with no shame; she kisses random women in the crowd during her performance; she approaches Naima and asks her to dance; she invites her back to her home. Flushed from their first orgasms together, Naima suggests something totally out of character for her: “We should do this for 24 hours straight.”
That doesn’t seem so difficult; a day can sometimes fly by. But staying awake, being honest with each other, and having sex every hour is simultaneously intoxicating and terrifying. Naima is being forced to reveal parts of herself that she normally keeps hidden — her true opinions on parenthood, on her mother, on other people, on the environment. In contrast, Sergio urges Naima to be more upfront about what she wants — coaching her through sending an angry email, asking her direct questions about her childhood and her parents — but a visitor from Sergio’s life outside of her burgeoning relationship with Naima raises questions about whether the reckless confidence Sergio shows is its own kind of charade.
Arteta shot the film in 24 hours, and the choice absolutely pays off; following Shawkat and Costa as they legitimately spend a day together adds freshness and rawness to their connection, which moves through stages of affection and resentment. Yet the film doesn’t feel voyeuristic; the performances are so natural — and Shawkat’s in particular is so nuanced and so emotive — that the movie feels more like spending a weekend with friends.
But that’s not to suggest the movie doesn’t get uncomfortable — it does, and that is integral to its magnetism and its strength. The intimacy the film is demanding of its characters it asks of its audience, too, and as you get drawn into whatever is happening between Naima and Sergio, you’ll feel involved in the push-pull of their dynamic. Maybe you’ll relate to one woman’s persistent self-doubt or the other’s wild optimism; maybe you’ll sympathize with both of their stories about unsavory sexual interactions with manipulative men (maybe Naima’s tale draws from Shawkat’s own life?); maybe you’ll see some of yourself in their fractured relationships with their mothers. Both actresses are so fantastically good that they sell all of Duck Butter, from the compressed timeline to the sexual dynamism to the identity transformations.
What a feat for Shawkat in particular — her myriad creative strengths are exemplified here, and I’m so excited for whatever she does next.