A dry, emotive take on the wellbeing industry and our obsession with being a good person, Bad Behaviour also tackles mother-daughter tension.
Are any of us good people, or special? And can we make peace with the fact that we might not be?
They’re questions that simmer to the surface of new local film Bad Behaviour, as director and writer Alice Englert turns a mirror on our toxic traits and how we endeavour for self-betterment, forgiveness and, of course, enlightenment.
One of those black comedies that New Zealand cinema does so well - although it boasts award-winning Hollywood stars Jennifer Connelly and Ben Whishaw — it’s a distinctly local film, produced by Desray Armstrong and Molly Hallam and shot in Glenorchy and Wellington across two months in the winter of 2022.
The cast’s biggest names play two of its pivotal characters. Jennifer Connelly is in the lead role of Lucy, a former child actress who became famous for a “warrior princess show” but floundered after that, and the plot follows her visit to the latest, of many, retreats. It’s somewhat meta-casting given Connelly’s trajectory — she worked as a child model before appearing in Once Upon a Time in America at 14 and Labyrinth at 16 — and she’s spent her entire adult life in the spotlight.
Connelly’s performance is exceptional; frustration and bitterness are writ on her expressive face, and she channels the bodily physicality of her character’s anxieties in a way that feels truly real. She’s also funny. And charismatic. Qualities that temper the simmering and, in one pivotal scene, explosive rage that underpins Lucy’s quest for peace and enlightenment.
She’s seeking solace from Ben Whishaw’s therapising spiritual leader Elon Bello, who we first hear over her car stereo, en route to his retreat.
There’s a strong New Zealand flavour to the dry, blunt humour, and laugh-out-loud moments (the swaddling scene is hilariously awkward) that also marry with genuine emotional pain.
It will strike a chord with anyone who has had a dysfunctional family dynamic, grappled with their own “bad behaviour”, or those of us who’ve had the urge to find ourselves.
The quest for enlightenment and the wellness industry’s commodification of care are objects of valid critique, with the film pointing out contradictions and hypocrisies; at one point, Wishaw’s self-styled guru has his secret, weekly cigarette by the rubbish bins and explains, “I’m enlightened.”
With Elon’s sweater vests, Freudian vagaries and theatrical manner, the effect is that of a crunchy charlatan. He spouts philosophical nonsense throughout the film, and you can never quite decide whether he’s genuine. Does he believe any of this, or is it all a grift? Pointedly, cinematographer Matt Henley’s camera keeps much of Elon’s merchandise in the frame.
His flock is a diverse bunch, with characters playing to tropes without being stereotypical (many are inspired by archetypes Englert has encountered on real-life retreats). They’re shepherded by deeply serious staff member Petunia — a hilariously deadpan turn by rising local star Ana Scotney — and Thomas Sainsbury’s Mark.
Among the followers is model and “also a DJ and very annoying person” Beverly, played by Succession’s Dasha Nekrasova, herself an influential multi-hyphenate (she co-hosts the podcast Red Scare, which has its own cult following). She quite literally interrupts the peace, arriving during the silent chapter of the retreat, and goes on to giggle, flirt, cry, perform enlightenment, take selfies and inflame Lucy’s tension.
Parenting roleplay underpins an unforgettable scene, and maternal dynamics and ageing are at the crux of the film. As well as directing, Englert also plays the role of Lucy’s troubled stunt-performer daughter Dylan, grappling with her own issues and trauma while also literally grappling with Marlon Williams’ actor character on their remote film set.
It’s when the two women come together that their pain and, yes, bad behaviour, come into clear view. Their scenes together, rendering this complex relationship and the two flawed characters at its centre, push the traumas underpinning the film’s comedy to its surface. It’s a bittersweet mother-daughter arc, but it pointedly leaves the question of who did the mothering in the air.
Another matrilineal link: Englert’s mother, Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, makes a cameo of her own. This background provides context for Englert’s assured directorial debut, which sees her join the family trade, and what one can only assume is her early exposure to the craft and challenges of film-making provides a layer to the narrative and polish to the movie.
She also possesses a refreshing perspective on the “nepo baby” discourse, acknowledging to W magazine in 2022, “I was born with a foot firmly wedged in the door.”
Her film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, and has screened at festivals in Sydney, Melbourne and Aotearoa’s own Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival.
New Zealand audiences, famously attuned to this kind of dark, dry humour and awkward silences, will be able to see it from November 2 when it launches at cinemas locally.
It’s being distributed in New Zealand and Australia by Ahi Films, which also supported its production. Funding came from the New Zealand Film Commission, the New Zealand Government’s Screen Production Grant, Bee-Hive Productions and other streams — an example of the investment needed to bring local films to life in an era of streaming and big-budget IP properties.
Our screens have seen the pursuit of wellness, happiness and satisfaction as popular fodder in recent years with the likes of Nine Perfect Strangers, The White Lotus and Severance, and while Englert’s film satirises the enlightenment industry and the self-obsession of modern culture, the characters are given the grace to find comfort and a sense of closure. It doesn’t condone the bad behaviour of its name, but it recognises our flaws and offers understanding.
Audiences will likely see something of themselves in Bad Behaviour — it resonates particularly with women — even though that doesn’t always sit comfortably. But that’s the point.
What if we’re not special? “You’re enough”, promises the film’s tagline.
Bad Behaviour is in theatres from November 2.