There is talent to spare in Alice Englert’s feature directorial debut, Bad Behaviour, and that is its biggest problem — it’s all over the place, rather than being channeled and controlled in productive ways. A fine cast, intriguing avenues of exploration, numerous artistic outbursts and a pronounced interest in the unusual are all to be found in this compulsively creative work, but the elements are not seized and shaped in ways that might have ultimately produced a coherent and satisfying whole. This first film gumbo by the eminent Jane Campion’s daughter has enough going for it to suggest that Englert has genuine talent behind the camera, but clarity of purpose is rather lacking.
Having your characters assemble at the outset at a guru-centric semi-silent retreat in a beautiful wilderness area signals all sorts of things about them: self-involvement, probable wealth, gullibility, societal dissatisfaction and spiritual searching of an often trendy and expensive variety. All this might not matter if the program’s leader was genuinely insightful and talented in exploring a subject’s inner world, but one look at Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw) welcoming his new guests might be enough to make you consider almost any alternative.
All the same, enlightenment seekers optimistically assemble at the Loveland Ranch in the foothills of Mount Hypnosis seeking understanding, clarity of mind and a way to reposition their priorities and modes of living. Chief among them are Lucy (Jennifer Connolly), a former child actress now searching for the meaning of life; Lucy’s daughter, Dylan (Englert), a stunt woman who flies in for the occasion; and, eventually, Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova), a young model.
From the outset, one senses talent here based on the film’s embracing and confident visual style and the director’s ambitious use of mixed moods to explore their characters. It’s a fine joke to have nearly all the cars in the parking lot be Teslas, Dylan is a welcome live wire who’s not as issues-encumbered as her mother, and the so-called “semi-silent” aspect of the retreat seems a hopeless goal, so verbal are all the women who have gathered together.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the characters are all so self-involved and narcissistic as to make you wish they would quiet down once in a while. Lucy is the most compliant in this regard, and while it’s good to see Connelly again in a serious and well-defined role, it never feels like the script goes far enough to accommodate all of her character’s talents, issues and desires.
Then there is the matter of tone, which is sort of noncommittal. Some absurdly comic moments arise here and there, but this is neither a straight-ahead comedy, which it could have been, nor a realistic drama, which would have made this far too ordinary; walking a fine line between the two would be a tricky enterprise for any director and Englert never really commits to one or the other. And, crucially, a much stronger character could have been made of the camp leader/head guru; in fact, why not make that character a woman as well, which would have been a novelty for starters but might more meaningfully have clarified the organization’s activities and priorities? Such a figure might have more securely grounded the character and made the dynamics more interesting. As is, this central role doesn’t come across forcefully or coherently, a lack that helps prevent the film from achieving any meaningful weight or meaning.
All the same, the filmmaking itself compels attention simply from its unusual and well-designed settings, characters and thematic preoccupations; despite its shortcomings, it sticks in the mind as something fresh and personal. Certainly from a visual point of view it excels, and there is more than enough creative turbulence here to make one anticipate Englert’s next directorial outing with keen interest.