Duck butter, for those who don’t know, is that questionable and sometimes smelly goo created by sweaty genitals. And yes, director Miguel Arteta’s latest feature, Duck Butter, is a reference to that. Glad we got that out of the way.
Arteta has a habit of making his audiences uncomfortable. There’s the marital dissatisfaction and its implications in The Good Girl (2002) and the economic and spiritual outlook of two polar opposites in Beatriz at Dinner (2017). Arteta makes no exceptions in Duck Butter, a romantic comedy about two women who attempt to fast forward through the awkward beginnings of a relationship by spending 24 hours together and having sex on the hour, every hour.
More specifically, Naima and Sergio, played by Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa, have two different views of the world. Naima is an actress incapable of connecting with her characters because she’s incapable of connecting with herself. And Sergio is a passionate, high-spirited singer who appears to live life in the moment. After meeting Sergio at a local concert, the two set off for a regular post-drink shag that turns into something more when Sergio suggests that the two engage in a 24-hour hoorah. Though fearful at first, Naima is drawn to Sergio’s carefree persona and after losing a dream role, she uncharacteristically agrees to take part in the obvious mistake.
What follows is a relationship timeline on speed. The first few hours are filled with romantic bliss, the middle hours center on the first cracks of their perceived perfection, and the last few hours are devoted to whether or not they can make it out of the rough patch intact. The difference between a relationship in real time and the one onscreen though, is that the former has some sort of foundation that can withhold the weight of reality that comes into play when the honeymoon phase dissipates. Something that Naima and Sergio’s approach lacks.
Arteta has a knack for capturing these types of real-life, festering irritations - dissatisfaction with reality, desire to speed through discomfort, lack of self-awareness. All the fun stuff that turns a regular movie outing into a total squirm-fest. Personally, I’m a sucker for those movies. In Duck Butter, Arteta does this by keeping the shots open and lengthy, allowing the story to roam freely. Viewers are privy to the full extent of Naima and Sergio’s reactions, the type of reactions that amplify when body language comes into play. When Sergio’s carefree spirit is revealed to be a cover up for her deep-seated fear of being ordinary, that unveiling is increased ten-fold because of the space the scene is given. It lacks music, fast edits, close-ups, and all those (sometimes) emotionally manipulative bump guards that make a movie’s blows less painful.
Though, the script, co-written by Shawkat and Arteta, often acts as a disservice to the film. While the dialogue is revealing it lacks weight and contains far too many clichés, making the actors fully responsible for delivering a moving story. Which they do, so the script isn’t as much of a glaring problem as it could have been.
Aside from that, Duck Butter is an entertaining film full of emotion. Shawkat and Costa excel in their roles, which call for depth in order to transform what is a young, immature approach to love into one of those rare brief romances that transforms our entire outlook on life. And the film examines a non-hetero relationship without caricaturing or sexualizing its leads. If all that doesn’t persuade you to watch it, the list of supporting actors might: Kumail Nanjiani, Mae Whitman, Mark and Jay Duplass, Hong Chau, and Lindsay Burge.