Going through high school can be a tedious bore, some of the best years of your life, or for some less lucky; an absolute living hell. Whether ridiculed for their smarts, their cultural and ethnic differences, or just because someone is a touch quirky, bullies tend to take shots at anything and everything. While each tormentor’s motivations for inflicting such cruelty on their classmates is the subject of much debate, that doesn’t mitigate the damage that is done to those bullied. Inspired the life cycle of a butterfly, Butterflies thrives through its poignant performances and stunning cinematography, though ultimately stagnating through its stilted and protestative screenplay.
Though punctuated periodically with flashbacks to her childhood, the story follows Melanie (Carlotta Summers), a mixed-race teen who goes about her school days as a socially phobic student who is fairly smarter than her average classmate. Even though she is supported by her concerned mother (Linda Powell), her true torment lies in her childhood friend Charlotte (Camila Perez) becoming one of her greatest abusers, going far enough to make Melanie fear for her physical safety. Melanie struggles daily via her classmates’ verbal assaults, but she resolves to overcome her surrounding conflicts and evolve.
“…her true torment lies in her childhood friend…becoming one of her greatest abusers…”
While it is true that many bullies take shots at those weaker whenever the chance strikes, sometimes for seemingly no reason, that uncertain reality doesn’t exactly seep into this short. Most of its confrontations serve little purpose beyond giving our protagonist a real hard time; and while that isn’t a bad element in it of itself, (here) it cheapens what she goes through, never impressing as an actual dynamic character arc. While these bully segments are bookended by scenes with inner monologues on full poetic angst, complete with twisted art and references to Joan of Arc, the film’s empathy for her plight seemed a little too hamfisted to be believable (this is coming from someone who was physically and mentally bullied for the majority of his grade school years). This attitude toward the subject matter never manages to translate into the actual narrative between the characters, and they seem only as if they are tools for metaphor and simile, rather than actual people constructed to toe a central theme.
Summers delivers a damn fine performance and quakes with emotion and energy; further speaking for her abilities in bringing out what she needs in the role, over her ability to actually craft the necessary characters and world. Perez and Julian Elfer are the pinnacles of the supporting cast, powering through with impressively memorable performances despite their lack of depth. However, the most notable elements are the harrowing and emblematic musical score by newcomer Prom and the absolutely stunning cinematography by A.J. Wilhelm. Both work to maintain an aesthetic that manages to equally capture a uniquely feminine perspective, and an unusual atmospheric tension similar to that of Brandon Cronenberg.
Overall, Butterflies does have a lot going for it, and will be a strong enough emotional and inspirational experience for most; though it will be hard for some to see past the heavy-handed theming and frayed logical throughlines.
Butterflies (2018) Directed by Cady McClain. Written by Carlotta Summers. Starring Carlotta Summers, Linda Powell, Camila Perez, Kristina Reyes, Julian Elfer. Butterflies screened as part of the 2018 Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.
7 out of 10