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Clay Pigeons: Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season”

Clay Pigeons: Fernando Eimbcke's "Duck Season"

Like many details in “Duck Season,” Fernando Eimbcke‘s choice of setting is a nudge of Mexican wit that will be lost on most of us. The establishing shots give us a quick exterior tour of the Ninos Heroes building of the vast Nonoalco Tlatelolco housing development in Mexico City. “Ninos Heroes” is a common name for streets and buildings throughout the country, and this particular housing development was the site of the Tlateloco Massacre of 1968, in which several hundred student protesters were shot and killed by police. In legend, the Ninos Heroes were six teenage soldiers who perished while defending Chapultepec Castle in the U.S. invasion of Mexico City in 1847. Refusing to surrender, five of them were killed, and the sixth wrapped himself in a Mexican flag and leapt from the building. Mexican children hear this story over and over during their primary education to learn the importance of patriotism.

The teenage boys in “Duck Season” are typical kids disgusted with their school, their families, and their lives, and they have no intention of jumping off any building to become heroes — they stay inside. Eimbcke resists the stereotypical portrayal of Mexico City as a bastion of wackiness and “colorful culture” and gives us realistic Mexican kids, as beholden to American brands as your average Midwesterner. And they have a sense of irony too: each time the boys start up a new round of the game “Halo,” they quarrel over who will be Osama, and who will be Bush.

Moko (Diego Catano, wearing a Rancid shirt) and Flama (Daniel Miranda) are preparing for a ritual, parent-free Sunday afternoon of video games and pizza when a 16-year old neighbor girl, Rita (Danny Perea), barges in and demands to use the oven. She is not welcome, spoiling the apartment’s comfortable air of dudeness with sexy looks and questions about converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. Soon the power goes out. With both the television and the oven out of order, the boys call for a pizza. But the pizza guy is several seconds late, in violation of Telepizza’s 30-minute guarantee and refuses to leave the apartment until he is paid. He and the boys are locked in gloomy stalemate as the pizza grows cold.

In Yasujiro Ozo‘s 1959 “Good Morning,” adults are communicative cripples bent on forcing their phony chatter and protocol-dependence upon their children. And although the children are not yet corrupted on that front, they’re jonesing for TV-hypnosis. Ozu implies that mindless chatter and mindless television are turning the Japanese into a population of idiots with an ever-increasing arsenal of tricks for avoiding meaningful interaction. In “Duck Season,” Eimbcke is of the same mind, and sets about systematically intercepting distractions and standards of etiquette to force quality time upon his characters. With the addition of strangers and loss of electricity, boredom quickly turns to awkwardness, and the characters are compelled to alleviate this acute self-awareness by any diversion possible. Their stream of weird activity choices creates fluid comedy in the narrative and a dreadful mess in the apartment. (One critic has already likened it to “The Cat in the Hat.”)

Eventually, they get tired and turn their attention to a painting above the television, a quaint composition of ducks on a lake, possibly even paint-by-number. The sad sincerity of this ugly, yet prominently displayed, object startles the four into meaningful conversation. The characters do achieve closeness, but Eimbcke is temperate enough to skirt “Breakfast Club” territory. The veracity of “Duck Season” lies in the moments when distance prevails despite close quarters. Human interaction is a clumsy comedy of hits and misses, and he openly concedes the sadness of words that evaporate in midair.

A scene from Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season.” Image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.

Stylistically, “Duck Season” borrows heavily from Jim Jarmusch, with sparse action, protracted pacing and focus on dialogue. What’s more, the pizza guy Ulises (Enrique Arreola) bears more than a physical resemblance to “Down by Law“‘s Roberto (Benigni). But the similarities really stop there; it’s an ingenuous and accessible movie, with handsome actors and a gratifying denouement. Eimbcke doesn’t attempt to stun the audience with lightning bolts or rattle the bedrock of cinematic history, but he does conjure a realistic intimacy, with flashes of poignancy and humor between moments of silence. Let’s hope the DVD has commentary so Eimbcke can explain to us American idiots all we’ve missed.

[Leah Churner is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]

Take 2
By James Crawford

If there’s a common thread that binds first-time feature directors, it’s that they try to do too much–as if the bottled frustration from years of stillborn projects must be completely exorcised in one sweeping gesture. And for a while, it seems as though director Fernando Eimbcke, a longtime director of short subjects, will nimbly avoid the ruin of debutant directors and resist the temptation to spew forth every idea he’s ever had onto the screen (Zach Braff, with “Garden State“). Over a good 60 minutes, Eimbcke’s artfully artless “Duck Season” breathes with the languid rhythms of wasted weekend afternoons, and it desires nothing more than to explore the weirdness and comforts of adolescence. Plot developments that scream sensationalism–Moko, a young, possibly gay pre-teen, falling for his boyhood best friend, Flama, divorcing parents, a girl abandoned on her sweet sixteen–are muted through flat, frontal compositions and beautiful long-durational takes where the actors stare directly into the camera. The avoidance of dynamic sightlines (and the tacit acknowledgment of the audience behind a transparent fourth wall) brings about decorum and prevents the drama from boiling over into excess.

But then, weed-spiked brownies send “Duck Season” over the Rubicon and into a montage where Eimbcke throws a myriad of ideas into the ether and fervently hopes that some of them find resonance. The sequence reminds me of a passage towards the end of the book “Breakfast of Champions,” where Kurt Vonnegut announces that he will now have his characters “say and do certain things for the sake of this story,” thus firmly insinuating the author’s hand into the narrative. In their pot-induced euphoria, the film’s quartet doesn’t appear to be acting organically but rather sensationally according to some rigid schema mapped out by the director. The actors make a deliberate turn from breathing humans to stifled marionettes–Moko’s deep-seated melancholy over his parents’ divorce suddenly flips over into shooting fine china with an air rifle as a fuck-you resolution to their petty squabbles over dividing common property. The two halves of “Duck Season” simply don’t hang together, and Eimbcke, who promises so much subtle profundity, only arrives at an aborted half-truth.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

A scene from Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season.” Image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.

Take 3
By Kristi Mitsuda

Movies like “Duck Season” make me feel like a cynical grump. With its sweet-natured conceits–such as Rita’s wish-quest to predict the color of candy centers–it discernibly strives towards transcendent whimsy. Of the painting of ducks from which the film derives its title, the four fast-friends ponder amongst themselves in reverential whispers stoked by a hash-brownie high: “Do you see it? Is it moving?” Yes, they agree, it is, and with extreme close-ups and slow fade-outs punctuating the sequence, you sense first-time filmmaker Eimbcke’s desire to inspire in us the same youthful awe and wonder. But though I waited expectantly to be “touched,” to feel the film’s fanciful spirit take possession of me, I remained for its entirety far removed.

Grappling with the divorce of Flama’s parents and Moko’s burgeoning feelings for his best friend, “Duck Season”–lensed in nostalgic black-and-white–seeks to elucidate the rapidly developing emotional maturity that goes along with adolescence. But the wistful, sensitive treatment often slips into sentimentality, for instance, in a strange flashback interlude where pizza delivery man Ulises remembers his boyhood dream of becoming an ethologist. And this evident contrivance stops the film from scaling the epiphanous heights to which it aspires. Which is not to say “Duck Season” doesn’t have its share of delightful moments: a perpetually dripping water faucet adds a meditative, metronomic ambience, and witnessing two glasses filled–perfectly–to the brim with foam-free Coke elicits genuine glee. But like the quartet staring in concentration at the artwork–more emblematic than sublime–you want the picture to be moving, occasionally convince yourself it might be, but, alas, recognize it remains disappointingly inert, a still life.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]

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