Still from Misbehaviour

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Misbehaviour is the movie equivalent of a teacher’s pet. In its ardent desire to please, it only manages to annoy. It’s one of those inspirational true stories—in this case, about a group of feminist activists who disrupted a beauty pageant in 1970—that’s expertly designed to leave you feeling better about the world. In 2020, a film has to dig pretty deep to accomplish that task, and this one doesn’t. 

It starts out with a pair of London activists on divergent paths. There’s Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a single mother trying to balance her child-raising with her studies. She’s hoping to work within academia to bring about change for women. On the other side is Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), who is more radical, abundant with passion but lacking discipline. Sally writes papers. Jo vandalizes sexist advertisements. Sally has straight hair and wears glasses. Jessie has wild red curls. Their initial friction, based on this thin characterization, quickly gives way to a partnership as they work together to plan a secret mission: to disrupt the 1970 Miss World pageant and stage a feminist “happening” on live television.

With nimble direction by Philippa Lowthorpe, there are hints of a heist movie that could have been, sort of an Ocean’s 8 with political stakes, but the filmmakers don’t go there. Instead of exploring the dynamic tension between our mismatched heroes, the film jumps around, first going backstage to share the experience of two contestants of color, Jennifer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl (Loreece Harrison), who, representing Grenada and South Africa, process what they perceive as their tokenism in a mostly White field. It wastes celluloid on the clueless creators of the pageant (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes), and, bizarrely, the pageant’s host, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, buried under prosthetics), and his wife, Dolores (Lesley Manville), who are struggling with the after-effects of Hope’s infidelity at a previous pageant.

You could envision a strong film built around any of these characters, but, when pitted against each other, they construct a convoluted point of view. As the activists plot their mayhem with fervor, the contestants experience the glamour and camaraderie of the pageant experience. These parallel plots converge, of course, when the protest happens and a surprise winner is crowned, but it’s never clear how we’re supposed to feel about the storylines. A better film could use this ambiguity to its benefit, highlighting the emotional casualties that often come with political victories. But Misbehaviour pitches itself, through its brisk pacing, plucky musical score, and underdeveloped characters, as a feel-good polemic, and it lacks the tools to make anything out of its complexities. It’s a closed system, within which layered thoughts have no place.

That’s not to say it’s completely without virtue. In this time of deepening despair, it’s pleasant to watch activists achieve a victory of any kind, even as the film stretches to frame its story as some kind of origin story of second-wave feminism in its final moments. The truth of how change occurs is, of course, far more complicated, but the makers of Misbehaviour are more invested in creating a film you’ll like than one that reflects reality. As such, it’s a difficult movie to hate, but a hard one to love.

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Misbehaviour is available Friday on VOD.