DISCLAIMER: This review contains mild spoilers for Alice Englert‘s Bad Behaviour.
You’ll find no shortage of onscreen mother-daughter relationship meditations. Whether it’s the complexities sprouting from mothers raising teen girls to older daughters caring for mothers, films big and small love dissecting one of humanity’s most nuanced bonds. Alice Englert’s feature-length directorial debut, Bad Behaviour, is no exception and tackles these often messy dynamics.
Jennifer Connelly stars as Lucy, a former child actress who seeks enlightenment from a guru, Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw). She flees to Elon’s silent retreat in the mountains while her daughter, Dylan (Englert), works on stunts for a film overseas. Lucy finds it challenging to adjust to the environment, and it doesn’t get any easier when she’s paired with model/influencer/DJ Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova) for a mother/daughter role-playing exercise. There, she sinks to a new low but eventually climbs out of that chasm to mend fences with her daughter.
First thing’s first: Connelly is, hands down, the best part of Bad Behaviour. Without question. I tried approaching this film with as objective a mind as possible, considering she’s one of my favorite actresses. You can tell she’s having fun in this role while stretching her comedic wings. We’re so used to seeing her breathe life into heavily dramatic characters. Thankfully, Bad Behaviour allows her to showcase her multi-genre versatility.
Lucy has a few lighthearted moments before reaching her breaking point, such as her initial phone call with Dylan, where she informs her daughter about the retreat, to yelling “Never surrender!” and evading capture during the fallout from her actions. Connelly navigates these moments with aplomb. Despite Lucy’s innate toxicity and transformation into a swirling vortex of trauma, you can’t help but root for her to find the light.
On another note, nobody cries like Jennifer Connelly. She’s one of the best criers in the industry, if such a thing exists. She unflinchingly bares her soul in this movie, showing us every dark part of Lucy. You can feel her pain. It’s never over the top, even during notable scenes wherein Lucy bawls her eyes out in front of retreat attendees. Connelly is darkly, bitingly funny, painfully raw and a captivating onscreen presence. This role could easily make her a (very) early contender for next year’s awards season.
Englert and Whishaw deliver fine work, too, proving to be capable sparring partners for Connelly. Englert, in particular, is fiery as Dylan and gels well with her fictional mother. Whishaw’s Elon is as irritating and punchable as you’d expect from a modern-day white male guru.
While the performances dazzle, and a few chuckle-worthy and impactful moments are sprinkled throughout, the narrative struggles tonally. This noncommittal approach gives way to meandering and disjointedness. Englert shoehorned in some scenes that left me scratching my head. I questioned if I was temporarily watching a different film (one — and only one — animated sequence seemed entirely out of place).
The lack of cohesion in the story trips up the pacing, with a few scenes dragging on while others propel the narrative forward at the speed of light, making you wonder if you missed something. Most of Dylan’s scenes feel unnecessary. Except for a few key moments with her in the end, you could’ve omitted most of her scenes without affecting the overarching plot.
Englert’s direction is solid, which is unsurprising given her mother is Jane Campion. Directing is in their blood. (Campion makes a brief cameo in the film as a doctor.) That’s not to say Englert can’t step out of her mom’s shadow. This is only her feature debut. She has the potential to become one of the filmmaking greats of her generation.
Englert’s exploration of mother-daughter relationships, generational trauma and the messiness of redemption is intriguing. The moments with Lucy and Dylan are the crux of Bad Behaviour. Despite the film’s tonal inconsistency and pacing issues, the message and thematic examination are crystal clear. Sometimes, the things we don’t say cause the most grief.
Lucy’s path to redemption is fraught with heartache and painful realizations. She doesn’t emerge victorious like in most stories of this nature. It’s a defining factor of the film in that regard, even though the execution is rocky at best.
Overall, Jennifer Connelly carries Bad Behaviour on her shoulders as the narrative wavers in committing to what it wants to be. However, looking beyond the rough edges and structural issues, you’ll find cinematic fragments of beauty and potentiality. Alice Englert has all the makings of a standout filmmaker.
You can stream Bad Behaviour by purchasing single tickets on the Sundance virtual platform until January 29, 2023, at 11:55 pm MST.