starring Gus Birney, Annie Parisse, Paul Sparks, Judith Roberts
written by Patrick Lawler & Theodore Schaefer
directed by Theodor Schaefer
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by Walter Chaw Theodore Schaefer's Giving Birth to a Butterfly is in love with doubling and other broad metaphors deployed to speak, Kieslowski-like, to the winsome possibilities of unlived lives. Trapped in a loveless marriage with oaf Daryl (Paul Sparks), Diane (Annie Parisse) is mother to wry Danielle (Rachel Resheff) and a dreamer of a boy (Owen Campbell) who has just brought home a girlfriend, Marlene (Gus Birney), pregnant by another. Marlene needs a place to stay, and against Diane's wishes, everyone's planning to impose Marlene upon Diane's household. It's weird, you know, because Marlene doesn't even seem to want to be there. That's the essential premise of Giving Birth to a Butterfly: that women aren't in charge of their own fate--ever, but particularly when they're in the process of expressing their biology. That is, when they're mothers. The best part of this film is the first part establishing a tense family dynamic, with Diane maybe the only adult in the room. The men and the pre-motherhood teen girl are silly and unmoored to the cold realities of existence.
Thrust into the position of decision-maker, Diane makes a bad one, resulting in her succumbing to a scam that leaves the family destitute. It's telling that she finds this out when her card won't allow her to buy a pack of condoms for the boy short of cash at the pharmacy where she works. Even there, with a stranger, she's thrust into the position of responsibility. And then Giving Birth to a Butterfly contrives to push Diane and Marlene together on a road trip to get Diane's money back, the end of which takes them to the tchotchke-festooned home of one Nina (Judith Roberts), who is, apparently, two identical people. Diane also works with two women who look the same, is in the process of sewing a pair of wedding dresses as the film opens, and has been robbed in an identity-theft scheme by something called "Janus Identity Protection"--Janus being, of course, the god of doorways possessed of two faces: one facing forward, the other backwards. Indeed, Giving Birth to a Butterfly is as heavily portentous as its title, offering up the read that Diane is the future version of Marlene if Marlene isn't careful and that Diane, in order to emerge from the chrysalis of her failed expectations, must first relinquish her carefully-composited identity.
Not saying these aren't interesting or valuable ideas to explore so much as that the picture goes about exploring them in a leaden, gravid way disproportionate to its value. It's swatting a fly with a Buick--the movie version of being trapped in a room with a young person who insists on reading their poetry to you. It's possible to say that the odd line-reading is calculatedly awkward, the better to simulate an air of uncanniness--Brecht did this, no?--but then Birney presents so naturally that I have to think Giving Birth to a Butterfly is simply not very good. For what it's worth, there's Birney. She's absolutely fantastic. She has the quality of a Dakota Fanning or an Azura Skye: smarter than everyone else, a little out-of-rhythm with her surroundings, delicate and tough, instantly compelling and believable. She's good enough that she provides a glimpse of how Giving Birth to a Butterfly might have worked with a smoother presentation, maybe a little more trust in its images and less devotion to its pages and pages of deadening exposition. As it is, it's one of those movies trying so hard for profundity that it's tough not to root for it--and tougher still to watch it fail.