Motherhood is always an intriguing subject for storytelling, but Hollywood has usually played it safe with the topic, often distilling the relationship between mother and daughter to a love/hate dynamic. Last year, however, in The Lost Daughter, the stunning directorial debut from actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, the unique relationship between mother and daughter was explored with a rawness and honesty that is usually taboo in mainstream cinema. There is the prevailing, almost-baked-into-our-DNA-as-a-species belief that the mother/daughter relationship is, always will be and always must be a loving, mutually compassionate and supportive one. What Gyllenhaal explored in her film, however, which she also wrote the screenplay for, were the vagaries that indeed exist in what can often be a much more complicated and colored relationship. That honest portrayal, especially coming from a woman who is also a mother, proved to be a compelling beginning to a much more honest conversation about a very specific human connection that has often been treated as cliché on the big screen. Which is why it’s so wonderful to have another new voice portray yet another element to the mother/daughter dynamic in Bad Behaviour, the directorial debut from actress Alice Englert, which makes its debut at Sundance Film Festival.
There is no loss of irony in the fact that Englert, who also wrote the film and co-stars in it as well, happens to be the daughter of Oscar-winning director Jane Campion. The fact that Englert has lived her life with a famous mother no doubt played a part in her creative process, as Bad Behaviour tells the story of Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), a former child star whose inability to emotionally connect with anyone, including herself, wreaks havoc on her relationship with everyone, including her daughter Dylan (Englert).
Lucy is clearly miserable, a woman whose past fame has scarred her more than it’s saved her, so she goes to a retreat deep in the Oregon woods, looking for enlightenment. Meanwhile, Dylan is working in New Zealand as a stunt performer on a film set. Dylan also struggles with self-esteem, seemingly a mirror image of her mother, lost, wounded, and clearly trying to escape from something. Both Lucy and Dylan self-sabotage their own experiences, winding up together, forced to confront their twisted connection, one that is a tangled mess of resentments, pain and inherited misery.
Bad Behaviour’s tone is all over the place, but it weirdly works, as the intention of the film is as hard to pin down as Lucy’s character, but it doesn’t matter in the end, as the two central performances are enough of cathartic experiences on their own. Connelly is absolutely genius in her embodiment of Lucy, a character unlike any you have ever seen before. Lucy is selfish, difficult and angry, but she is trying really hard to convince herself that she wants to change. For the most part, she has managed to keep her aggression passive, until she comes across a twenty-something model at the retreat, played by Dasha Nekrasova, who pushes all of Lucy’s buttons, triggering all her pent-up negative emotions. When Lucy finally explodes, it is delicious and hilarious, a catharsis of dark comedy, delivered magnificently by Connelly, who had already sucked us in with her character’s twisted and morally bankrupt psyche.
It’s easy to forget Connelly is an Oscar winner, as her career has been relatively quiet, averaging less than one film a year since her Best Supporting Actress turn in A Beautiful Mind in 2001. But Connelly is making somewhat of a comeback, having been the best thing in the blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick last year, and now delivering an absolutely devastating performance here in Bad Behaviour, one that most certainly deserves to linger all the way to awards season. Her character is enigmatic and coarse, and there’s something in the way Connelly seethes with aggression while desperately trying to tap into her own vulnerability that is borderline addictive. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her, as each unexpected moment is better than the last. The film’s overall tone ebbs and flows with Lucy’s mood, a powerhouse performance that drives the film.
With such a visceral central performance, it might make all other performances fade into the background, but Englert is able to pull formidable triple duty here, directing (and writing) herself to a performance that not only is able to keep up with Connelly’s, but plays off it well. Also exceptional is Ben Whishaw, who plays the mercurial leader of the retreat, a pseudo spiritual guide who claims to be enlightened and willingly charges his gullible clients to buy into his path to enlightenment, which may or may not be a charade.
The tonal inconsistencies of the film may seem awkward to some, but the dark humor that lurks underneath is mined perfectly and will satisfy any with a wicked sensibility to appreciate it. Englert has no doubt inherited some of her mother’s storytelling savvy, but if Bad Behaviour teaches us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected and you will be rewarded.
Bad Behaviour is screening in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.