Lucy is looking for enlightenment. Dylan wants to prove her strength. And in Alice Englert’s thrilling and darkly funny feature debut “Bad Behaviour,” both mother and daughter will find their way there. Well, eventually.
First off, we’ll dispatch with the sadly necessary disclaimer: Englert is, as the Internet would love for us all to repeatedly yell about for mostly boring ends, a “nepo baby.” The daughter of Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion and fellow director Colin Englert (and, hell, let’s do the full family tree: also the granddaughter of actress Edith Campion and theater director Richard Campion), Englert has long dedicated herself to her own artistic career. She’s an actress, writer, singer, and songwriter, and with “Bad Behaviour,” she ascends to feature filmmaker status (she’s got two short films under her belt already).
Perhaps it’s the talent in her genes, perhaps it’s her unique life experience, perhaps some combo of that and more, but Englert is already a formidable, fully formed filmmaker. Dumb labels be damned: She’s the real deal, and “Bad Behaviour” is proof positive of that.
Englert, who also wrote the film’s script, is all too happy to wink at her background. Jennifer Connelly stars as a former child star (she mentions a “warrior princess” role from her teens that forever changed her, both in good ways and very bad) who is grappling with being out of the limelight. Englert herself co-stars as her daughter (“nepo baby”?!?), who is attempting her own Hollywood career as a stunt performer. Campion herself turns up in a cheeky cameo. But despite these nods to Englert’s own upbringing, “Bad Behaviour” is wholly its own original beast.
We pick up with Lucy (Connelly) as she’s on her way to a silent retreat with her guru Elon Bello (a very funny Ben Whishaw), who she listens to religiously on tape. Elon doesn’t seem particularly enlightened, but Lucy is into his schtick enough to fork out money and time to spend a week or so at his latest event, filled with similarly lost souls who think that going wordless for a while might help, well, whatever. Before she goes dark for an indeterminate period, however, she needs to catch up with her only daughter, Dylan (Englert), who is half a world away, working on a truly inane-looking fantasy film in New Zealand. (The country plays itself and also stands in for the Pacific Northwest, where Lucy lives, a production choice that works well.)
The women aren’t particularly simpatico, but they do share a bent toward exhibiting what Englert’s cheeky title hints at: behaving badly, even if they are, at their core, good people. Lucy’s attempts at righting herself zing between the hilarious and the profane as she tries to embrace whatever cuckoo-crap Elon slings at his followers (that it’s Elon who breaks the silent part of the silent retreat is just one of many amusing pops Englert adds at opportune times). Lucy’s fraught relationship with pseudo-enlightenment is thrown for a loop by the late arrival of a model/DJ (the also very funny Dasha Nekrasova), who takes everything even less seriously and yet is instantly beloved by all. Great!
Meanwhile, Dylan is on the other side of the world trying to prove her mettle as a rising stunt performer (internal checklist: scoff at Mom, proclaim she can’t feel pain, ask for harder hits, flirt with a fuccboi, repeat). But Dylan is indeed her mother’s daughter, and she too is prone to being bad, even when she thinks she’s actually doing good.
All of this is funny, flinty, and intriguing enough before Englert throws in a wild twist — and by “wild,” we mean good, well-earned, extremely shocking, and a solid catalyst for what comes next that pushes both women into new spaces. (Snappy editing from Simon Price assists in the twist and more.) That means reuniting, and Englert mostly avoids cliche when finally throwing these two toxic strivers together, with Connelly and Englert, already so good apart, doing even better work when they’re finally sharing the screen.
Englert’s cracking wit and ability to find humor and heart in all sorts of situations translate to her own performance, which is sneakily vulnerable. Even as Lucy grows more complicated (the role is a full meal for Connelly, who also produced the film), Dylan remains a ballast for her, maybe the only thing she truly loves. But how can someone as flawed as Lucy fully express that? And how can someone as bottled up as Dylan accept it?
Those questions linger throughout “Bad Behaviour,” heady topics Englert approaches with consistent laughs and deeper explorations. While the final moments may prove more inscrutable than everything that came before, they at least point to Englert’s force of vision and her intent on carrying it out. Maybe that’s something you’re born with, or maybe it’s just something you work for. However she gets there, Englert has arrived.
“Bad Behaviour” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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