Brow Beat

Ignore Rotten Tomatoes, Alia Shawkat’s Duck Butter Is Well Worth a Viewing

The lesbian dramedy perfectly balances newfound passion and raw cynicism.

Alia Shawkat (L) and Laia Costa (R) in Duck Butter. They are both young women in their twenties. Shawkat wears a light blue, red-striped T-shirt and has freckles and curly, dark hair. Costa has long, straight, brown hair and wears a brown shirt that reads "RUOK?"
Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa in Duck Butter. The Orchard

I have tough news, everybody—sometimes Rotten Tomatoes is wrong. I know, I know. It’s a shocker, but the review aggregator is an imperfect system rather than a universal beacon of filmic quality. See, for instance, the officially “rotten” Duck Butter, which had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week and is the latest film from Beatriz at Dinner director Miguel Arteta. The Hollywood Reporter calls the film “surprisingly banal,” and Slant Magazine claims it’s “difficult to fall in love with.” “Duck Butter gets props for its creative story, for its queer women-centered storyline,” Bust conceded. “But ultimately, [it’s] a just-okay sex comedy.” I couldn’t disagree more. The unique film, co-written between Arteta and star Alia Shawkat, follows millennial actor Naima, AKA Nima (Shawkat), and eccentric musician Sergio (Laia Costa) as they decide to skip conventional dating and instead spend time together for 24 hours straight.

The film has garnered salacious buzz for its plot—Nima and Sergio also commit to having sex every hour during their day-long trial run—but the coming-of-age comedy is much more than a Blue Is the Warmest Color-esque exploitation. For one, the lesbian sex scenes are actually realistic. Blue was criticized for its “cold,” porn-y sex, and while Duck Butter offers its fair share of outré sensuality, its intimate scenes are decidedly more playful. (It probably helps that Shawkat is queer herself; she name-dropped Duck Butter in her coming-out interview).

Duck Butter is also able to expertly balance its comedic and dramatic tones. In one scene, Sergio tells Nima to shout, “I am so beautiful!” at the moon. It’s a moment that’s likely to garner giggles from the audience, especially when Sergio then yells at the moon to “Stop being jealous!” Still, it’s an emotional moment for Nima, a tomboy who doesn’t play into typical expectations for feminine beauty and is undoubtedly unaccustomed to such praise. Shawkat, who is perhaps best known for her role as Maeby on Arrested Development, has never been better as her impeccable timing punctuates this film’s uncomfortable hilarity. Spanish actor Costa is striking as Sergio, a role originally written as male.

This unconventional film, shot largely in real time and with an improv-heavy script, manages to recreate reality within an alternative, undeniably cinematic world. Shawkat and Arteta have crafted pitch-perfect characters, as bizarre and bombastic as they are wounded. Though the film kicks off with a number of self-indulgent celebrity cameos (we get it, you know the Duplass brothers), it quickly evolves into a meaty, intoxicating romance. This story is more than just a cool premise followed by empty fluff—Nima and Sergio are outrageous, but they feel like real women. Nima’s commitment issues and Sergio’s overwrought intensity are two sides of the same, damaged coin.

Perhaps the reason the film struck a chord with me is that I see Nima and Sergio reflected and exaggerated in my own dating culture, though I hope one doesn’t have to actually be a young gay woman to “get” it. If you can step outside of your comfort zone, like Shawkat and Costa demonstrate with their brazen performances, this is worth a watch. Duck Butter opens in limited release on April 27.