There's imported-film minimalism, and then there's this: Fernando Eimbcke's feature debut, Duck Season, a daringly banal comedy of ennui set almost entirely in a middle-class Mexico City flat. Knocking them dead at festivals and at the Mexican Ariel Awards, where it enjoyed a Ben-Hur-like sweep, Eimbcke's movie could become the couch-potato nation's anthem film, if only Gen-Xbox could sit through it. As the title suggests (certainly inadvertently), we're in the land of narrative reductionism, where time is only something to be killed and conversations are as empty as a Bugs-Daffy tit-for-tat, but without the aptitude for comic attack and with plenty of silent downtime. You'll wait for an “Elmer Season” fillip in vain.
The conscientious depletion of story is both the movie's modus operandi and the probable cause of its refreshed-fest-goer hosannas. (Someone should do a study of how concentrated film-fest movie watching — consuming sometimes five movies a day for a week or more — affects award-winnings and audience-fave choices. It's certainly a different context than you or I enjoy during normal life.) Two Mexican tweens, Moko (Diego Cataño) and Flama (Daniel Miranda), see Flama's harried mother off for a Sunday and settle in for a spacious afternoon of Halo and Coke. A 16-year-old neighbor girl named Rita (Danny Perea) begs to use the apartment's oven. Thumb, thumb, beep, beep, “Kill you, asshole,” “Then kill me, faggot.” It's Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise for gamers — until the power goes out.
After one of Duck Season's many slouchy longueurs and a pizza order, the first sign of tension is the delivery guy's race through traffic and hump up the elevatorless building's stairs within his 30-minutes-or-it's-free window. Of course, whether or not he (Enrique Arreola) succeeds is a matter of dispute, so he loiters, and succumbs, when the power is briefly restored, to the challenge of playing video soccer for the money.
Jarmusch's seminal 1984 film had a similar fondness for dead brains going deader on sofa cushions, but Paradise had a formal humor and an existential chilliness that filled the movie's empty well like rainwater. (Jarmusch, in any event, saw the benefits of excessive personality when he cast Roberto Benigni in his next film, Down by Law.) Eimbcke's film is a relative bagatelle, hunting for mild hints of comedy and wackiness amid the torpor. Brief moments are gag-scored with quasi-merengue and rock, but then abandoned. Rita enlists Moko in her recipeless baking debacle, Flama and Ulises the delivery man squabble, and eventually Eimbcke relents in his dedication to the space's four walls and provides Ulises with fragmented flashbacks to his previous job as a dog-pound attendant. A soulful equanimity is found in regard to the pizza payment, and it's revealed that Rita is baking herself a birthday cake because her family forgot. Eimbcke resists the ordinary teen-com reflexes, but then Rita and Moko experiment with French kissing, and Rita's second baking experiment produces pot brownies — a natural lubricant the filmmaker wastes on a musical interlude.
Shot in silvery black-and-white, Duck Season is not charmless — just insubstantial. The smoldering crisis in Flama's home — his parents are waist-deep in a bitter divorce — takes center stage, providing the viewer's famished consciousness with some shreds of narrative red meat, but it's also where the movie becomes sodden and trite. Only Perea's Rita, nursing a hidden psychic bruise and ranting against blond favoritism, is a suitably robust character, and only she handles the meaningless moments with complete confidence. The other three leads are required to do little other than sulk, which they do adroitly enough, but the bell-jar circumstances of the film only backlight how thinly conceived the characters are. Real middle-schoolers would be much more lively, imaginative, irritating, idiotic, restless, and talkative, all at once.
But because of its dead air, love of minutiae (you'll sympathize with the concentration devoted to singeing a marshmallow with a hand-click fire-starter), and sense of waiting, the movie accumulates a sneaky affection anyway; you grow fond of it, like a relative's kitschy home you never wanted to visit but remember warmly now. But no 14-year-old I've ever met will opt for it over a good shooter.