Much like the little girl with the curl in the well-known rhyme, when this film is good, it’s very good. But when it’s bad it’s … well, the original poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says “horrid,” but Bad Behaviour is more very awkward and self-indulgent. But the good largely outweighs the “oof” and this is a first feature for writer-director-co-star Alice Englert who should be applauded for taking interesting if not always successful risks.
At least Englert made a safe bet by casting Jennifer Connelly in the lead, for one of her best roles for many years. Here she plays Lucy who, like Connelly herself, was once a child star but is now filled with rage and bitterness with her parents, her (never seen) ex-husband – and even her grown daughter Dylan (Englert) who is working as a stunt double in New Zealand when the story begins. Lucy calls Dylan from Oregon where she’s just about to check into a retreat to say she’ll be incommunicado for a while, but Dylan is distracted and the line is bad.
At the retreat, which is built around the platitudes and nostrums delivered by guru Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw), Lucy struggles to sleep and takes a deep, abiding and perhaps entirely justified loathing to narcissistic model Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova). The dialogue, whether it was written by Englert or winged by the cast, smartly skewers pseudo-mystical psychobabble but then swerves uncomfortably when the drama starts to probe Lucy’s very real pain, which then triggers a properly shocking act of violence.
If the movie had covered everything at the retreat and stopped at the moment of violence it would have been an elegantly structured short. However, Englert keeps cutting back to Dylan working on an unhappy film set where she has an affair with an actor and ends up getting injured in the line of work. (The brisk doctor who treats her, seen in just one shot, is Englert’s real-life mother, director Jane Campion.) Dylan flies back to the US to support Lucy and the two bicker and snipe at each other in highly credible mother-daughter fashion before forging a superfluous epiphanic conclusion. The back half is all over the place and doesn’t seem to know what to say – but Connelly never ceases to be anything less than mesmerising as the kind of older woman full of spit, vinegar and shrapnel who could go off at any second.
• Bad Behaviour is available from 4 December on the Icon Film Channel and from 5 January in UK cinemas and on digital platforms.