Tedious, Overwritten Mother-Daughter Dramedy Bad Behaviour Gets Lost in Its Own MessMovies Reviews Sundance 2023
It feels overly simple to relegate Bad Behaviour, a too-quirky reflection on generational trauma and the ways we try to resolve it, as a film content to chew the cud when it comes to mommy issues. But the feature film debut from Alice Englert, daughter of groundbreaking filmmaker Jane Campion, does really make you wonder if that’s all there is to it. Englert writes, directs and stars in the film (the latter role, as a stuntwoman, clearly her area of expertise), which flies all over the map in service of two women and the weird ways they deal with their pain. Half high-concept enlightenment satire, half exhausting family dramedy, Bad Behaviour is as tedious as its leads’ search for inner peace.
At least Jennifer Connelly gets to let loose as an off-putting, fed-up, barbed-wire brat. Her character, Lucy, got rich off of a youthful TV acting gig (Englert, also a former child actor, can be seen just as clearly here as in the character she’s actually playing) and has been trying to buy her way to better mental/spiritual health ever since. Her performance, and that of Ben Whishaw’s Elon (the guru whose retreat she attends), make the first half of the film watchable. Maybe not great, as the script impedes their jobs as caricatures with overwritten obstacles, but far better than when Lucy and her daughter Dylan (Englert) reunite under tense circumstances for the rest of the movie.
Connelly’s hard-faced stares are endearingly uncompromising, while Whishaw’s performance tics make his culty, soft, probably Insta-famous leader perfectly hilarious. His frequent smug chuckles—at nothing, seemingly, but that old trickster Life—are so funny that you just want to smash a chair over his head. Whatever Englert’s foibles as a filmmaker (and juicing your first feature with on-the-nose commentary, hiccupy pacing and cutesy strangeness isn’t an uncommon one), she’s getting her performers where they need to be. Her turn as Dylan is equally winning, as she’s beaten and battered by every aspect of her career.
But boy, does Bad Behaviour love to make its characters spin their wheels. The issues Lucy has with her own mother, a depressed woman whose struggles trickled down as they’re wont to do, have themselves passed to Dylan. By virtue of her more accepting generation and the law of diminishing returns, she’s doing a little better, all things considered. When the two unite for the film’s best scene—a close-shot and prickly hotel room conversation about memory and suicide and selfishness—it’s because their clash, with their differing levels of processed emotion, feels more real than anything else in the movie. Connelly, leaning so hard into a fragile and snippy perpetuation of someone else’s pain, cuts Englert down at every turn. Englert takes it on the chin like a seasoned brawler. It’s painful, revealing and just blackly funny enough. Aside from some of the truly silly wellness parody sketches (because that’s what they feel like: sketches), this is the only scene that works.
The rest is wearying. Wannabe symbolic weirdness, like cave-venturing reversal births and martial arts mountaintop dancing, feels like the film putting on a weighted vest. So too does the annoyingly twee lawyer played by Karan Gill, the last in a string of non-white non-characters tasked with taking care of the movie’s difficult white women. An ugly animated segment is thrown in for good measure, in case your indie movie bingo card needs another filled box. The movie plods along under all the strain of these amateurish elements, scored by unbearably bouncy music, limping back to the same topic without ever developing anything.
Bad Behaviour’s scattered approach to a single-minded theme puts too much on the shoulders of its cast. You need a keen dagger of a script when attempting to strike this tone of irreverent and jagged humor on top of more serious maternal commentary. Englert’s gets a few stabs in, targeting easy marks like model/DJs, entrepreneurial advisors and the persnickety privileged class, but it’s mostly a glancing attack, deflected by the sheer impenetrability of its messy construction.
Director: Alice Englert
Writer: Alice Englert
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Whishaw, Alice Englert, Ana Scotney, Dasha Nekrasova, Marlon Williams
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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