Alice Englert’s directorial debut, “Bad Behaviour,” walks a tightrope, for its almost two hour long runtime. Lucy (Jennifer Connelly) is pursuing enlightenment while her daughter, Dylan (director Alice Englert), is looking for autonomy in the most physical of ways. Lucy has maternal trauma and unresolved demons, and seeking to banish these from her influence, embarks on a nature retreat with others looking to do the same. Meanwhile, her daughter Dylan, a stunt performer, takes blow after blow in the New Zealand woods, putting her body on the line so as to distract from the persistence of her mind. Mutually avoidant, these women are eventually brought together by a gut punch of an event that leaves them forced to address their fraught relationship.
“Bad Behaviour” toggles between crushing, emphatic poignance and awkward, absurd humor with a deft hand. The humor is showcased most prevalently through the thorny social dynamics of Lucy’s self help retreat. The somewhat charismatic but tongue-in-cheek pseudo-Siddhartha of Elon (Ben Whishaw), the guru of the group, contributes to chuckle-worthy therapy session set pieces that are both embarrassing to watch and for the characters to experience. Whether it’s roleplaying as infant and mother or baring your deepest familial traumas, clever framing and editing assists in making these situations feel as ill at ease as Lucy does.
As Lucy apprehensively unpacks her inner psyche, participating in exercises and spilling from the tucked away corners of her mind, Dylan is pushing her body. Tumbling down hills, over stairwells, and sleeping with her fellow performer, we are introduced to her character through actions alone. While this serves as a notable contrast to Lucy, and a thoughtful diversion to establish the difference between them, it also shrouds Dylan in enough mystery to question why she’s involved in the film to such a lengthy degree. Her narrative arc feels mostly irrelevant until the end of the film’s final act, and by consequence, doesn’t hold the engagement necessary for the majority of the runtime.
Englert’s performance is versatile. She is expertly in her body for both overtly physical moments as well as minute emotional ones. Connelly, however, is the film’s centerpiece. She delivers a breathtaking performance that is highlighted by “Bad Behaviour’s” adherence to a facial motif. The cinematography enhances the most moving moments through stock-still closeups, allowing all attention to be drawn to performance. This motif is not merely an auxiliary to highlight acting, but also a symbol of vulnerability and being known.
The throughline of “Bad Behaviour” is built on the back of the power of emotional distance. To be facially forward in moments of distress is difficult and revealing, and the moments of either anger or catharsis that accompany this exposure are a testament to the importance of audience in the process of self-searching. Lucy feels defensive, indignant, and at times enraged at the retreat, and Dylan shrinks within herself at any first sign of emotional unveiling. There is anger and pain in being misunderstood and “Bad Behaviour” highlights that opening up is not enough, it’s the company with which you do that makes the difference.
The film’s marriage to nature is yet another emotional tool. The photography of these wooden landscapes brims with adoration and awe, as well as further cements us to the idea that Lucy and Dylan are inhabiting these natural spaces while plundering into their own natures and begging the question of where and when nurture got involved.
The problem with “Bad Behaviour” is its difficulty to establish cohesion. The dichotomous plotlines feel completely incompatible: we understand how these women are related, but the film doesn’t seem to know how to connect them. Lucy’s excursion on the retreat is treated as the film’s leading plot, but the hopscotch method of leaping to Dylan on a periodic basis distracts from what we’ve been led to focus on. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that we finally understand, but by then, so much time has been wasted in confusion and speculation.
Despite muddling its plots and flummoxing its priorities, by the film’s conclusion, the impact of Lucy and Dylan’s relationship is what sticks in your mind and heart. “Bad Behaviour” is a shivering mother-daughter portrait that investigates the culture of emotional recovery and the ways we hide within ourselves. It unpacks how childhood is a fundamental and potent authority in our adulthood, and that attempting to reconcile with a state of consciousness we’ve outgrown is a tenacious type of pain, but worth the strife it takes to come out on the other side.
Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.
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