Giving Birth to a Butterfly, Theodore Schaefer’s beautifully whimsical debut feature, strikes a balance between tender and vaguely disturbing, an effect similar to David Lynch’s work. I hate to use “Lynchian,” a term often—and sloppily—used for movies with a purely surrealist slant. But Schaefer’s film, also imbued with a distinctly American nostalgia, more than deserves the description.
In this creepy indie, we’re plunged into an American no-place, where a suburban dad, Daryl (Paul Sparks), plans to open a restaurant despite having no money; and where a former actress named Monica (Constance Shulman, channeling Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”) prepares for a big interview that will never happen. Facing these tragic figures are Daryl’s wife, Diane (Annie Parisse), and Monica’s daughter Marlene (Gus Birney) – two women exhausted by the follies of their loved ones.
Marlene is pregnant and her boyfriend Drew (Owen Campbell) – Diane’s son – wants to raise the baby, although he is not the biological father. Diane, a pharmacist, is shocked by the idea. Daryl’s restaurant plan has cost them pennies, and even worse, Diane soon discovers that her bank account has been emptied by online scammers. She’s been cheated, she admits to Marlene, led astray by the kind of optimism that dazzles.
The two women track down the identity thief – a GPS dot on Diane’s computer flashes in the middle of a perfectly spiral road – and head to the ominous location.
They bond along the ride, though their intoxicating dialogue only works a little. Paradoxically, it leaves little room for ambiguity amid images, captured at luscious 16mm by cinematographer Matt Clegg, that lovingly evoke the strangeness of everyday life (pet fish, spilled fruit and more than one set of twins). The mannered, deliberately stilted performances give the drama a stage-like feel, which matches the film’s ethereal aesthetic. But the forced depth of the ‘Butterfly’ script undermines the film’s compelling sense of atmosphere, which is dripping with melancholy, menace and wonder.
Giving birth to a butterfly
Not judged. Running time: 1 hour 17 minutes. Look at Fandor.