SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! With her feature-length directorial and writing debut Bad Behaviour, actress Alice Englert announces herself as a force to be reckoned with. Wise beyond her years, she tackles mature themes with the confidence of a seasoned filmmaker, so assured in her abrupt detours and stylistic flourishes that it begs disbelief. Her film is a bold mix of character study, pitch-black comedy, and uncompromising drama and won’t be for everyone. But that’s what makes it special.
The narrative is split into two halves. The first involves former child actor Lucy (Jennifer Connelly) embarking on a semi-silent retreat in the United States. Spiritual leader Elon’s (Ben Whishaw) teachings, which he records, seem dubious at first. “An opportunity to no longer participate in socializing,” he calls the retreat, encouraging guests not to smile, wink, or sign. A particularly odd session has the participants swaddling each other in a mother-child roleplay. Soon, however, the vocal sessions attain depth and become surprisingly penetrating.
Lucy is not a happy woman. Her anger makes her an outcast. Just when you think she may actually be befriending model/DJ/”very annoying person” Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova), a particularly ferocious episode throws a massive wrench in her quest for enlightenment by landing her in jail. “I don’t feel guilty,” she tells her lawyer.
Bad Behaviour unravels a parallel subplot focusing on Lucy’s estranged daughter, Dylan (Englert), back in New Zealand. She’s a deeply committed stunt performer who subjects herself to dangerous, injury-inducing falls. When she hears about her mom’s misadventures, Dylan reunites with Lucy, and hence the second half begins, one that primarily pivots around the two leads.
“…hears about her mom’s misadventures, Dylan reunites with Lucy…”
Englert’s approach is very much steadfast. She often places the camera directly in front of the actors, leaving them no room to escape. Good thing she’s got actors that can handle the intensity. You’ve never seen Jennifer Connelly quite like this before: unhinged, desperate, angry, resentful, and loving. She tears her soul inside out. Whishaw keeps up in a role that could have easily slid into caricature. “Don’t hope!” he bellows at one point. “Just be.” And Englert herself delivers her most confident performance yet.
The young filmmaker nails the minutiae of such retreat establishments. At first, Bad Behaviour seems like it’s going to satirize them, but Englert immerses the viewer into the day-to-day routine. She also displays featherweight subtlety and even intermittent poetry when exploring such things as celebrity culture, mother-daughter relationships, what it means to be a modern woman, and spirituality.
“I don’t want to be miserable because I love you. I want to be free,” Lucy proclaims to her daughter in an unexpected moment of poignancy. A prolonged single-take at a café seems inconsequential but speaks volumes, allowing the actors to showcase their skills. A conversation by a creek tears at the heartstrings.
It’s not all perfect. The first half is slow-moving and, at times, a bit aimless. The film is prone to melodrama, verging on whimsy. “You’re all pain,” a character fervently proclaims to Lucy. An animated interlude on an airplane is there just because. The final dance on a mountaintop will be hard for cynics (like me) to swallow.
Yet what remains undeniable is Englert’s directorial chops. Bad Behaviour is exactly the story she wanted to tell. She couldn’t care less if you hate it or love it, refusing to pander to anyone’s expectations. Good for her. That sort of bad behavior is what makes her stand out as a filmmaker.
Bad Behaviour screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
"…what remains undeniable is Englert's directorial chops."