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Giving Birth to a Butterfly
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by Jay Seaver

"An entrancing quest for lost identity."
5 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Theodore Scaefer's "Giving Birth to a Butterfly" is an intriguingly odd duck of a movie, with a 16mm aesthetic that recalls old home movies despite its modern concerns, and a cast of characters you could drop into a sitcom except for the ones that are in the midst of existential crises. It is a bunch of combinations that seem like they shouldn't work even before they start to wander into stranger territory, but it nevertheless leaves one even more anxious to unpack what's going on.

Things are a little bit tight in the Dyer household, with mother Diana (Annie Parisse) sewing costumes for a community theater production and mulling over how she could add something like that to the rotation as internet gig work she does on top of her job at the drugstore while husband Daryl (Paul Sparks) talks about opening a restaurant. Teenage daughter Danielle (Rachel Resheff) is working on the same production in lighting, while her older brother Andrew (Owen Campbell) is introducing the family to his girlfriend Marlene (Gus Birney) - pregnant, but by someone else. Diana is reasonably alarmed, while Daryl is almost obliviously supportive of this situation. Diana is so used to being the glue of the family that when she discovers an identity theft has drained their bank account (under the guise of "Janus Identity Protection" software), she enlists Marlene to help her confront those responsible. But what they find when following that path…

Not that things are necessarily sensible in their small New York town; although sometimes the sense of how things are off is a little harder to put one's finger on, especially for the people of Diana's generation. Marlene's mother Monica (Constance Shulman) is completely, obviously delusional - a one-time actress who lost her best shot at fame when a movie set to shoot in this town didn't happen, she is constantly anticipating her comeback and seems unable to acknowledge Marlene's pregnancy, choosing to believe she's the star of the community theater production. Daryl imagines himself a chef, dressing the part at every opportunity, but everyone avoids saying too much about his home cooking. His comments about his employers aren't quite racist, but he also can't understand why <I>they</I> are the bosses and <I>he</I> is the employee. They're of a generation when many were raised to believe that their dreams not just could come true, but would, and literally can't handle it.

Their kids don't seem to have the same sort of delusions. The Dyers reflect their parents to some extent, Owen Campbell's Drew isn't that much brighter than Paul Sparks's Daryl, but Drew's not a selfish the way Daryl is and obviously has a big heart. They're both broad, simple characters, but one feels affection for Drew; his simple nature doesn't deny anything or treat others poorly. Rachel Resheff is perhaps the most underused member of the cast; Danielle is funny and practical without being particularly wiser than her years, finding what she likes and learning about it, although one worries about her in the scenes where Resheff is playing against one of the men in the cast - she's halfway onto her father's selfishness, but there's signs she might shrink from asserting herself as she's literally shining light on others.

Most of all, Gus Birney is a real delight to watch as Marlene. This girl has been effectively discarded in one way or another by people who seemingly have little use for her beyond their own desires, so it's not surprising that she grabs onto Drew's kindness or wants to make herself useful to Diana. Birney and the filmmakers are able to peel back one's first impressions of this young woman, though - they take the assumptions that come with her seeming kind of vacuous when saying she's not working at the library because of the pregnancy but may go back, quietly subvert them when she's quietly good at research (but not so much that one initially notices the irony) and has her talk about soaking in what she sees at libraries and museums and not for how it may be useful to her as a creator later. Birney builds Marlene into being curious and eager to help people connect with what they need to know behind being quiet and self-effacing, and it quietly dawns on one that these are good qualities for both a librarian and a mother.

It makes her more than just a plot device to help Annie Parisse's Diana figure some things out, although they play off each other in fine fashion as the pair discuss their uncertainty, with Diana having the harder bit of self-examination to do. She starts out as a quintessential Sensible Mom, more put-together than her comedic husband, funny in her reaction shots to Daryl being a dumbass and as a straight woman when her quest gets surreal. But one needs to do more than be sensible to be satisfied, and Diana has been reactive for a long time. Schaefer and co-writer Patrick Lawler set up a nifty little row of dominos in how she finds out about the identity theft because seeing Drew and Marlene leads her to pay for a teenager's condoms the next day, and from that point on, she seems almost paralyzed from that point on, her self-conception of herself as the sensible one in tatters and initially just absolutely unable to engage with what she finds at the end of the road in the way that the curious Marlene is.

Before they get there, there's an intriguing scene back home, as Monica, thinking she's giving acting advice, says that one must "lose the self utterly and devastatingly" and you can both argue that she has and hasn't - she's stayed insanely true to her idea of herself but disconnected from her role as Marlene's mother - and Diana is in the opposite position, unable to be who she's defined herself as but no clear idea who she is otherwise. So what comes next initially seems like little more than surreal nonsense to her and the audience, but there's also something to each piece that has a little hook, from Diana inside a hidden room to the train that always exists between places.

It is a lot to fit into 77 minutes, especially when the film sometimes seems to meander. It's engrossing, though, the kind of strange that makes even those of us who often get frustrated by the obscure metaphorical want to look closer.

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originally posted: 08/12/21 09:46:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Theodore Schaefer

Written by
  Patrick Lawler
  Theodore Schaefer

  Gus Birney
  Annie Parisse
  Paul Sparks

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