‘Bad Behaviour’ Review: Alice Englert’s Directorial Debut Comes In and Out of Focus

Sundance 2023: Englert and Jennifer Connelly play daughter and mother in a quirky film with some moments that land but too many that do not

Bad Behaviour
Sundance Institute

“Bad Behaviour” is a family affair in more ways than one. It centers on mother Lucy and daughter Dylan, both of whom work in the entertainment industry. Alice Englert (“Ginger & Rosa”), who wrote, directed, and stars as Dylan, would know a little something about that — she’s Jane Campion’s daughter. The “Power of the Dog” auteur even makes a cameo in the film.

Though “Bad Behaviour” is playfully meta, it’s not needlessly self-referential. Englert separates herself as a filmmaker with this screwy tale of modern narcissism (although she and her mother do both have a thing for guru characters). “Bad Behaviour” is bright and lively (not Campion’s wheelhouse) but, like its characters, it’s also aimless.

Englert clearly wants to say something meaningful about mothers, daughters, acting, female celebrity, social-media culture, spirituality, and mental health, but she’s not yet deft enough to tackle all of these things at once. A stumbling first feature, “Bad Behaviour” hints at promising pathos and vision without delivering anything truly substantial.

The film opens with Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), who is headed for an Oregon retreat led by Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw), a soft-spoken yet judgmental sage. Alice hopes to let go of all of her negative feelings — towards both others and herself — and finally reach enlightenment. When condescending model Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova, “Succession”) arrives and becomes the darling of the retreat, Lucy struggles to maintain her serenity. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Dylan is working as a stuntwoman, where she begins an ill-fated flirtation with an actor (newcomer Marlon Williams) on set.

According to the press notes, Lucy is “easily annoyed” by her fellow retreat members and “destructively obsessed” with Beverly, and Dylan is in a “bad romance.” These tensions, if present at all, are not nearly so exaggerated in the film. Lucy clearly has trust issues, but she seems more like a quirky introvert than anything. Dylan’s dalliance with her coworker is mainly comprised of sweet montages and soft lighting; it’s hardly presented as a “bad romance,” even if it doesn’t end well.

Such is the main problem with this film: Tone and subject rarely align. The script is spotty, haphazardly revealing important backstory. For instance, mental illness runs through Lucy and Dylan’s maternal line. Though that fact is ostensibly the source of all these characters’ troubles, it’s not fleshed out within the film itself. This is in large part because Dylan’s side of the story is so thin until, suddenly, it’s not. Lucy and Dylan’s relationship is scarred by one harrowing event, but that’s not even hinted at until right around the climax.

The film’s greatest creative strength — its whimsy — is also its worst narrative weakness. Where she might have further developed her story, Englert inserts, for example, an animated dream sequence. During a pivotal search party, someone spots an apparition in a cave. Elon is named Elon, and the film features two Teslas, but there’s no “Glass Onion”–esque critique at work here. His simpering disciple, Petunia (Ana Scotty, “God’s Favorite Idiot”), is supposed to provide comic relief, but instead she just feels excessive.

“Bad Behaviour” looks spectacular, despite its foibles. With their flyaways and bare faces, all the women look, refreshingly, like normal women. (Shout out to hair and makeup designer Stef Knight.) Nearly every frame of the film radiates a lo-fi indie softness. With cinematographer Matt Henley (“Wellington Paranormal”) and production designer Heather Hayward, Englert has crafted a pleasingly twee little world, but it distracts from an already distracted story.

The best marriage of Englert’s script and vision comes in the form of baby role-play. As a retreat exercise, Elon has participants split into pairs — one pretends to be a mother, the other pretends to be her baby. The babies are swaddled and they can act only with a baby’s capabilities. It’s on the mothers to support their heads, attend to their needs, and rock them when they cry. This activity undoes Lucy and she ends up sobbing her head off. Though played for laughs, it’s a stunning performance by Connelly.

For the most part, both leads elevate this movie beyond its skeletal story. Englert is at her best when giddy with romance or adrenaline. Connelly is a master of the tearful thousand-yard stare. As mother and daughter, though, they’re not incredibly convincing. Due to quirky costuming, Connelly’s Lucy feels younger than she ought to. (If this is meant to intentionally signal a flaw in her parenting, it doesn’t translate.) Perhaps as a result, in one emotional scene, the leads’ chemistry feels more sexual than familial.

“Bad Behaviour” has all the trappings of a Sundance staple: It’s off-beat and low-key despite its exciting cast; both too cool for school and bolstered by filmmaking legends. But unlike similar dramedies like “The Skeleton Twins” or “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Bad Behaviour” never sticks the landing. There are some good nuggets here — the leads, the look, the always-scene-stealing Dasha Nekrasova. When Englert goes behind the camera again hopefully she can coalesce her many enthusiasms into one walloping whole.

“Bad Behaviour” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.