Bad Behaviour, 2023.
Written and directed by Alice Englert.
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Ben Whishaw, Alice Englert, Ana Scotney, Dasha Nekrasova, and Marlon Williams.
Former child actress Lucy seeks enlightenment at a retreat led by spiritual leader Elon, while she also navigates the close yet turbulent relationship with her stunt performer daughter, Dylan.
Being the daughter of the most recent Best Director Oscar winner, Jane Campion, must place some lofty, perhaps unfair expectations upon Alice Englert’s shoulders – not to mention a tidal wave of “nepo baby” callouts – but her ambitious feature debut Bad Behaviour nevertheless collapses entirely under its own power. For as wonderfully committed as Jennifer Connelly is here, even she can’t stem the film’s exasperating messiness and stamina-depleting lack of editorial discipline.
Lucy (Connelly) is a former child actress who heads to a retreat to join her guru, the hamfistedly-monikered Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw), at a remote mountain resort in Oregon. Lucy claims, like most everyone there, that she’s seeking enlightenment, but following her instincts ultimately leads her down a dark road as she comes to find satisfaction in breaking from society’s prescribed – and legal – script. After Lucy confronts a long supressed side of herself, she eventually reconnects with her far-flung stuntwoman daughter Dylan (Alice Englert), who harbours not-so-subtle resentment over her mother’s neglectful, emotionally unavailable past.
At first it seems that Englert’s movie is a rather aloof, deadpan satire of self-involved wellness retreats, yet it spends so much actual time indulging the various monologues of Lucy and her fellow attendees that it becomes quite genuinely exhausting to sit through in its own right.
And it’s almost a full hour, cutting back between the retreat and Lucy’s daughter working on a dangerous stunt job in New Zealand, before the plot’s majorly catalysing incident occurs. At this point, Lucy allows her darker instincts to take hold, seeming to embrace the curative, regenerative powers of destructive, even self-destructive, behaviour. Without spoiling the tide-turning scene in question, it’s by far the most entertaining part of the entire movie, but sadly doesn’t tee up the unapologetically nasty, full-throttle second half you might be hoping for.
It’s at this point that Englert’s film unfurls into a more overt mother-daughter drama, as Lucy attempts to avoid imparting the same trauma inflicted upon her by her own abusive mother, and make up for the damage she’s already done. Englert’s clearly shooting for something quite specific here – an at times perversely funny character study with a slow-simmering sentimental gloss – even if the more caustic streak only hinted at seems like it’d be considerably more compelling.
Indeed, the dark humour occasionally rouses a titter, but so much of the dialogue is excessively flowery, ensuring that all of its 107 minutes are palpably felt. It doesn’t help that the B-plot featuring Englert herself isn’t nearly as captivating as Connelly’s A-plot, and clearly could’ve been given some judicious trimming.
But the most frustrating thing about Bad Behaviour is how criminally it does so little with Connelly’s game performance. If early scenes might suggest she’s something of a Karen, Connelly refuses to play Lucy quite so broadly, and is too much of a world-class pro to give anything less than 110% in every moment. Connelly shines especially once the mid-film turn has taken place, and filmmaker Englert is savvy enough to appreciate how her expressive face is ripe for so many illuminating close-ups.
Even though Englert’s own subplot often feels like dead weight, she fares much better when working directly opposite Connelly later in the movie; the chemistry between them achieves some of the film’s most natural, comfortable material. Elsewhere Ben Whishaw is a giggle as “enlightened” retreat leader Elon – a man very clearly sitting on a mountain of bullshit, while alternating between disarming hilarity and a quiet, slow-building creepiness. Also be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a hilariously blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from a certain industry legend.
In spite of its fine acting, though, this is rare film that feels both too much and not enough all at the same time, painting on too broad a canvas for its smaller-scale ideas, and in turn beating the viewer into an apathetic stupor long before the end credits finally roll. Would it be mean to say that Bad Behaviour feels like a parody of a Sundance indie directorial debut? Would it be wrong?
All in all this isn’t to declare that Englert is without filmmaking talent, but that as a storyteller her tone, her characters, and her overall throughline feel too vague and diffuse to fully satisfy as either thorny satire or earnest mother-daughter drama. Jennifer Connelly’s fearless performance is squandered amid a scattered mess of ideas and tones in Alice Englert’s disappointingly precious feature debut.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.