Once you know the meaning of the title of Duck Butter, it’s hard to say it without a little bit of a grimace; it seems like a little bit of mischief on the part of co-writers Alia Shawkat and Miguel Arteta to make so many nice rich people at the Tribeca Film Festival utter it so many times. It’s the kind of title that makes you want to ask the creators “Why?” while also knowing exactly why. The holistic, engrossing, often icky sense of intimacy that the name suggests is very appropriate for this head-spinning film, a romantic endurance test that’s rewarding and suffocating in equal measure.
Shawkat stars as Naima, by all appearances a barely veiled version of herself — an indie actress who has just got a job on a Duplass Brothers movie (Jay and Mark, who of course also executive produce, make cameos as themselves, as do Naima’s co-stars, Kumail Nanjiani and Lindsay Burdge). After her first day of shooting, she goes with a friend (Mae Whitman) to a bar as backup during a date; it’s there that she meets Sergio (Laia Costa), a strikingly uninhibited foreigner who seems to be everything neurotic Naima isn’t. She goes home with Sergio and her friends (including Hong Chau and Kate Berlant), and the two hook up by the end of the night. Afterward, musing about the difficulties of dating and going through the emotional toll of getting to really know people over months and years, only to have them disappoint you, Sergio proposes an idea: That she and Naima spend the next 24 hours together, having sex every hour, essentially getting through the entire first few months of dating in a day.
The plan is too out-there for Naima, who is due on set the next day. But when she’s unceremoniously fired, she returns to Sergio, ready to reconsider. Thus commences the two women’s marathon of a relationship, which covers the thrill of first getting to know someone and their body, to the deep revelations, recounting of sexual histories and family stuff once trust is gained, to the fights that go around and around in circles. There is sex — lots of it — depicted with such a sweaty, tactile sense of physicality that you hope everyone’s remembering to stay hydrated. Duck Butter wants to smother you with intimacy ‘til you’re sick of it, but it’s all still totally exciting; to Naima and Sergio, playing at a long-term relationship is the most subversive kink of all.
The stars have said that they actually did deprive themselves sleep along with their characters, and it shows: Duck Butter drags itself to its finish line in an almost hallucinatory delirium, when they fight, they can hardly remember the beginning of the conversation. In the final hours of the arrangement, they change locations and head to Naima’s house, Naima meets Sergio’s mother, and the spell is broken, like a soufflé moved too indelicately from the counter to the table. It turns out that committing to such a daffy stunt as this marathon is nothing compared to imagining what could possibly come after; the disparity of the two women shows the limits of physical intimacy in understanding deep-down needs and wants.
Duck Butter is a lot — I felt dizzy upon leaving the theater, like I myself had just gone through that same wired 24 hours the protagonists did. For that, I have to give Arteta and Shawkat props — and as the writing debut for the latter, it isn’t shabby at all. But as with the sex marathon, I wonder a bit about the “and then what” of the whole thing. What is being communicated beyond these two very specific characters and their very specific 24 hours? But as a sensorial experience, Duck Butter is not easily forgotten.