Actress Alice Englert’s first feature Bad Behaviour is, natch, a quintessential actor’s film. Englert wrote and directed, and also co-stars alongside Jennifer Connelly, who seems born for role of Lucy, Englert’s character Dylan’s mother. As the film opens, Lucy is on her way to a quasi-silent retreat in Oregon, presided over by the enigmatic guru Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw). Before completely losing service and her right to speak or use technology, Lucy reaches out to her somewhat estranged daughter, who’s on set in New Zealand, a stunt person in what appears to be a sci fi or fantasy flick, tasked with training a lead character on how to properly choke and pummel her. Maybe all Lucy really wants to do is let someone connected to her know where she is and that, should anyone try to contact her, she’s not dead. Or maybe she’s just, or also, testing the waters to make sure that someone who should care about her still does. Lucy is a mean person, cruel, not just because she says what’s on her mind, but because she says it with an atavistic malice. She can make the question “Do I remind you of your mommy?” feel like a threat. It is, in a way, particularly if you don’t know Lucy, if you don’t know how she’s likely to follow up on your answer.
Being a mother is a particular sore spot for Lucy. She’s been quite bad at it, as we understand from Dylan right from that first call. But it’s not necessarily that Lucy doesn’t know this, or that she doesn’t know how a mother should be. It’s perhaps more the problem that she didn’t have a very good role model, and she’s let that burn her up, though we learn little about her deep past. Rather, Bad Behaviour revels to the point of wallowing (a good wallow—uncomfortable, hilarious and penetrating) in the difficult work Lucy tries to do to untangle the seemingly irresolvable knot that’s strangled her emotional, intellectual and behavioral impulses. Is she a misanthrope? Perhaps, and maybe it’s strange to say, but her cruel victories and equally cruel failures are mesmerizing, a delight, as performed by Connelly.
Close-ups are plentiful in the film, as are long scenes and takes, which give the actors ample time to supplement the smart and cutting dialogue with illuminating, frequently complex expression. The setting of a self-help retreat is easily satirized, but it serves here, too, as an opportunity for scripting several teeth-gratingly embarrassing and earnest acting exercises, the most extended of which is a roleplay in which one partner is supposed to act as mother to a baby before switching roles. It’s absurd when Elon describes it (he participates, too), but seeing it play out in real time, a viewer feels a bit like a participant: skepticism is overwhelming at first, but by the time the final step of saying something to your mother you wish you’d said comes along, there’s real anticipation that something important is about to be revealed. Maybe this is a moment, too, when skepticism is still lingering, that we feel a touch of impatience, wondering if the time the film takes in such scenes is asking a bit too much, if it’s all going to be worth it. Just stick around. Bad Behaviour is also full of weird, amusing, and horrifying jolts.
In a sense, Bad Behaviour is not really about its overarching narrative, which is, nevertheless, pretty satisfying. It’s about the exploration of its characters, about the generosity of scenes and situations that give the performers the opportunity to stretch out in those skins. Elon becomes a bit of a sidenote, narratively, once the scene shifts and the film focuses more on the current state of affairs between Dylan and Lucy. But Whishaw delivers so many tasty nuances, indications of self-doubt, self-serving fear, deep confidence, irritation, perhaps a touch of madness, that he remains with you as if he’d had the screen time of a lead character. Some of Elon’s traits exist in the script, no doubt, but, as with Connelly’s equally complex Lucy, the final result is both evidence of long conversations with the director-screenwriter and an astonishing display of the actors’ intelligence and training. There are layered performances across the cast, the kind we don’t get to see very often, even in many of the most celebrated indie and arthouse films. That’s not to say that Bad Behaviour overall is the equal of the best of these. But as a showcase for acting, it’s hard to beat.
Sundance Film Festival screenings of Bad Behaviour: Thursday, January 26 at 9:00PM at The Park Avenue Theater, Park City