“Duck Butter” Review: Good Lesbian Sex, Average Lesbian Mumblecore

One of the reasons bottle episodes end up being everyone’s favorites, and screenwriters love mirroring Midnight in Paris, is that confining characters to a single space or a specific amount of time adds an extra element of urgency and drama to everyday scenarios. Duck Butter, Alia Shawkat’s indie film that landed at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring and is now available on Netflix, joins Room in Rome and The Bold Type in taking that narrative construct and making it gay. Two strangers — Naima (Shawkat), a struggling actor in Los Angeles; and Sergio (Laia Costa), an untalented but aspiring artist and musician — meet at a club and hook up and decide to spend a sleepless 24 hours together, having sex once an hour, in an effort to skip that whole relationship thing where you spend months or years getting to know someone only to end up disappointed.

Actually, Naima declines the initial request, which her best friend Ellen (Mae Whitman) supports. “Can’t you just go to coffee,” Ellen asks, bewildered. But when Naima gets fired after her first day on set of the Duplass Brothers’ new movie (starring Kumail Nanjiani and Lindsay Burdge, of course), she rushes to Sergio’s house and begs her to follow-through on the offer.

At first it’s all sex and silliness and the kind of sleepless euphoric hijinks someone who actually has your best interests at heart would never let you do (sending a crass email to the directors who fired you and derailing your career, just for one example). But as the night wears on, the personality quirks that were evident in the club where they met start causing conflict. On that fateful night, Sergio coaxed a crowd of rowdy lesbians into enjoying her terrible musical performance by dropping into the crowd and making out with one of her hecklers, while Naima lectured a group of elderly lesbians in the corner about using up all the planet’s natural resources.

The categorically good things about Duck Butter are: 1) The sex scenes, which feel real and are not male gaze-y in any way; 2) the fact that the screenplay was co-written and the film was executive produced by Shawkat, an actual queer woman; 3) Shawkat’s performance. She’s a star; and 4) There are moments of real intimacy; most importantly, Naima’s recounting of a sexual experience that leads to Sergio explaining the concept of “duck butter” to her.

Whether or not the film lands with you in any real emotional way will probably depend on whether or not you relate to or find yourself drawn to either of the characters. If you think Sergio’s eccentricities are charming and not grating (I don’t) or if you think Naima’s inability to turn-off her persistent low-level panic about the state of the world is darkly funny (I do), it will feel more like an exploration of identity and less like a trudge to a clearly doomed end. Because the thing is, at the end of the day, Naima and Sergio realize who they are in relation to each other (not compatible) but nothing about themselves at all. Neither of them seem to register even the most pat lesson of their time together: That knowing how someone likes to fuck and be fucked, and knowing the stories they choose to tell you about their life, are not the same as knowing them.

I am a firm believer that the more queer movies we have out here in the world, the better, especially movies made my talented queer people. And the production value of this movie is excellent, dizzying even. But ultimately, for me, Duck Butter was a lot like a Naima and Sergio’s failed experiment: the sex was good but the delirious lesbian mumblecore didn’t leave a lasting impression.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 800 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. I watched about half the movie until I realized it was directed by a man, and then I stopped. Clearly to each their own, because I thought it was male gaze-y. I wanted to like it, but alas.

  2. I watched the movie and it was mixed.
    It had nothing to do with stating or exploring sexuality. So that was nice for a change. Just two girls who meet and casually hook up. No mentioning of gay, lesbian, queer, bi, even though we know what their sexualities might be.

    Also, no cheating, no men involved in their lives or who they had any kind of romantic attachment too at the time or who had some kind of control over them.

    However, story wise, the show is a let down. Like once you finish watching it, there’s a void left. No lesson learned (neither the characters or the viewers have any lesson learned). We really don’t know what’s up with either of them, what they want or what their main deal is. So that was just a bummer on its own.

  3. My biggest problem with this movie is Sergio. I was mostly annoyed her antics, especially at the end, and I don’t know if it’s the actress or just the way the character is written. The character was originally written to be a man and I know I would have absolutely loathed this character if he had been.

    Other than that, I enjoyed Alia Shawkat in this movie which saved it for me. I wouldn’t have been able to get through it if I found both characters insufferable.

  4. I listened to Cameron Esposito’s Queery Podcast episode featuring Alia Shawkat and they discussed that Naima wore a sports bra and that it is such an unscene thing during sex scenes–for a person’s shirt to be taken off and for them to be wearing a sports bra in an everyday casual way.

    That stood out to me aswell–I didn’t realize that I hadn’t seen that represented until I saw it represented.

  5. i would like to quote my own instagram story about the movie here: duck butter is the weirdest fucking lesbian movie. and so many of my friends replied to it and they were like I HATED IT.

    heather, i got so much anxiety from watching this movie!!! i half watched it while i mindlessly scrolled on my phone and i still was so anxious!! sergio made me so uneasy from the beginning and not in the good way. i was waiting for her to blow up and wow, she sure did!

    things i did like about the movie: alia’s face and her whole deal, i think that’s why i continued watching just for her; the sex; and them not shying away from gross shit like the whole duck butter deal. the premise had so much potential!! but overall, i was mostly confused, especially about sergio’s relationship with her mom?? it was weird!

  6. I felt like Sergio’s character was just one red flag after another. Which, if it was supposed to read like that and make the viewer feel like watching a slow moving trainwreck, then I think it was an effective film, even though it made me uncomfortable. If not, meh. I did think Alia was incredible and I am in awe of the subtlety of her acting and how she conveyed so many emotions with her eyes.

  7. I really liked this film!

    I wouldn’t say that either of the characters landed with me in an emotional way, but I don’t think I was looking for that. It’s clear from early on that you’re going to be watching a microcosm of their relationship so I felt like it was more about witnessing how they arrive at the inevitable. Some of that was done really well, like the sex starting out fun and plentiful and then they’re worrying about not having done it for 2.5 hours, or the increasing frequency that Naima’s trying to escape to the bathroom. But the stuff at Naima’s house with the Mum and the aborted threesome was probably a bit too intense.

    Also, I liked Sergio! Possibly because I have never dated a psycho? And how can you say Naima learnt no lessons – she got a dog! A DOG, Heather!

  8. I was underwhelmed by this film and I really wanted to like it.

    The element of the film I most disliked was that Sergio, in my opinion, was a version of a “manic pixie dream girl” combined with the stereotype often ascribed to South-Western European (French, Spanish, Italian- the Romantic language countries) of being slightly unhinged and hyper-sexual. Penelope Cruz was cast like this in almost every film I saw her in with the exception of the Almodavar films. The problem with “manic pixie dream girls” is their real purpose is to help a different character (usually a man) learn about themselves. Sergio was given a fair amount of back-story (hence she is a version of a MPDG), but I didn’t think her character was as well developed as Naima’s and she was really used to help Naima discover herself.

    Naima did learn a lesson – that she’s not able to cope with another person’s emotions and their opinions of her hence she buys a dog! That’s not to say that’s why people buy dogs, but I thought it was an interesting ending.

  9. Okay, I will probably watch this movie, for the sex if for no other reason, but I just looked up what “duck butter” is on urban dictionary and oh man whyyy my life was certainly better for not knowing that, and why is this movie called that oh god?! That combined with the mentions of poop above make me feel like I might be best served by fast forwarding through all of the “movie” bits and just stopping at the sex scenes.

  10. I think the sex scenes were well done, the rest of the movie was repeated ????. I found both characters to be annoying. I stoppped it about 3/4 of the way through because the characters were so in sufferable. What saved the movie was the amazing sex scenes. I could not take my eyes of those scenes. They should get an award for best sex scenes in a movie.

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