“Gah, everyone’s in their own fucking cage” – Owen Cambell as Andrew.
There’s a fine line between a bad performance and a surreal one, and Giving Birth to a Butterfly runs that tightrope effortlessly. Wearing its Lynchian influences on its sleeves, reducing it to just them is an injustice that should be reserved for capsule reviews or spoiler-free texts to your friend who owns the Criterion Collection Tati Box Set. Because that friend needs to watch it.
NYC filmmaker Theodore Schaefer’s feature directorial debut, Giving Birth to a Butterfly, is a family drama with a small scope. The film centers on a family of four, headed by Annie Parisse (Law and Order)’s Diana, a strapped-for-cash mother desperate to find a way to make money online. Her husband Daryl, played by Paul Sparks (House of Cards), is a verbally abusive diner worker who’s dragged the family along with him in search of his ill-defined dream of owning his own restaurant. Rachel Resheff (The Escort) plays one of their two children, working the lights for the local community theater show. Her brother, played by Owen Campbell (X), brings home his new girlfriend Marlene, played by Gus Birney (I’m Thinking of Ending Things), who is pregnant with another man’s child. Over Parisse’s objections and with Spark’s blessing, they’re moving in.
Together, Parisse and Birney lead the film, Marlene’s status as an expecting mother challenging Diana’s comfort with her own parenthood. Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a film interested in parenthood, identity, and chosen paths in much the same way as David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), which it purposefully enters into dialogue with. Like that film’s titular lead, Parisse feels trapped by the parental responsibilities she’s found herself in, jolted into crisis by the coming arrival of a child. The film questions the performances we put on for our loved ones and how they can override our identity one compromise at a time until the lie becomes the only truth. Marlene’s neglectful mother in the film, Monica, is played by Constance Shulman (Fried Green Tomatoes). Monica is a wannabe actress who still can’t get over the performance she never got to put on. As opposed to being centered on the community play that touches the family’s lives, it’d be more apt to say that the film is surrounded by it, caged in by the performance.
Some of the most important scenes in the film call attention to the cast’s own acts of performance, placing significant character beats within stunning long takes and monologues. In these sequences, the camera becomes its own character, seamlessly transitioning from powerful handheld shots to smooth tracking moves around actors and locations. Somehow, these moves fuse the naturalistic and the performative, calling attention to the artifice and sinking you past realism into surrealism at the same time. Shot on 16mm film stock and housed in a square frame with rounded corners, the film wants you to remember it’s a film, even while it makes you forget.
While this is Theodore Schaefer’s first directed film, he was an executive producer on the 2021 critical horror darling We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, so it’d be an easy mistake to think this was a dark piece of surrealist horror. Far from it. Returning to the Eraserhead (1977) comparison once more, one could call the film the inverse Eraserhead (1977), but that would, again, be reducing it. It’s a film about metamorphosis and how moving from one stage of life to another means adding and losing parts of who you are. It is thrilling in its emotionality, but it’s also heartwarming. Schaefer directs each performance with a great deal of empathy for the characters, even at their worst moments. Combined with the magic trick of tones he pulls off, he’s proven himself a new, invigorating cinematic voice. His next project is a return to producing, the Michael Cera vehicle The Adults (2022), which was just picked up at Universal Studios, but this author cannot wait until his next turn behind the wheel.
Available for streaming via Fandor May 16th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
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