Theodore Schaefer’s directorial debut, Giving Birth to a Butterfly, is a lingering, surreal dream drama that deserves to be much better.
It’s always a good sign when you walk away from a first-time feature thinking less about what you just watched and more about why you just watched it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on who you ask.
Giving Birth to a Butterfly stars Annie Parisse as Diana, a wife and mother who’s identity is stolen by an internet scam that robs what little money her struggling family has. Worried about her husband Daryl’s (played by real-life partner Paul Sparks) reaction, Diana recruits her son’s girlfriend Marlene (Gus Birney), who’s pregnant with someone else’s child. Simple, right? Well, what starts as a pretty grounded premise eventually gives way to phantasmic surrealism by the film’s end. Imagine starting Ladybird, but somewhere along the way it gradually morphs into Donnie Darko. This transition is slow and catches you off guard, and not unlike Diana, it leaves you thinking, “how did we get here?”
Here’s another question. What does someone owe their family? The film offers many perspectives for how you can answer this. You have Diana and Daryl, a wife and husband in a husk of a marriage. Diana admits that it’s become easier to let Daryl get his way, rather than fight him on anything. Daryl is so self-absorbed and obsessed with his unrealistic dreams that he believes they’ve become the entire family’s dreams, to which they owe their time and sacrifice to help him achieve.
“Some women would do anything to get married, and some would do anything to get out of one.”
Their son is on the precipice of fathering a child with his girlfriend that isn’t his, meanwhile their daughter is slowly turning out like her mother, becoming apathetic to her family. Amongst these four family members, we see how the choices of our parents, the obligation to family, and the innocence of time can leave a devastating impact. That’s mostly thanks to superb performances that execute these generational messages and themes. The passion Schaefer clearly has for the story clearly made its way into the casting process, as each actor turns out an affectionate interpretation of each character’s outlook.
In pure Lynchian fashion, Schaefer never outright answers any questions the film asks. Instead, he leans heavily into symbolism and absurdity in the film’s third act to give the viewer their own choice of answer. Schaefer submits that your own personal thoughts and feelings toward the film don’t matter to him in the slightest. Acting as director and co-writer, he created this film from top to bottom as a piece of artistry that tends to be indulgent to the point of self-satisfaction.
It’s like watching George Lucas’s debut film THX 1138 for the first time, in the sense that you can feel as an audience member being witness to something that is the complete epitome of the director’s psyche. A film borne from their very soul. An exact creation made to the point of alienating anyone who doesn’t share their same perspective. First-time filmmakers do this a lot, but then sometimes we also see this from seasoned filmmakers (Ari Aster’s recent Beau is Afraid, for example).
Not for everyone, or even most people. But that’s probably the point.
So while I certainly don’t find Giving Birth to a Butterfly as enthralling as I hoped, I think if you told Schaefer that, he’d most likely say that’s quite all right with him.
In terms of what works, the most interesting directorial choice is how Schaefer aligns his cinematography style with the frame of mind Diana finds herself in from scene to scene. Choosing a textured 16mm format and 1:33:1 aspect ratio for the film grounds it in the comfort of the past. Early scenes feature a drawn-out steady cam shot, with the family in the center of the frame with hard cuts to what comes next. Then as Diana progresses in her journey, physically distancing herself from her family, Schaefer similarly distances his photography style, choosing wandering shots matching the changing character mindset.
Slow crosscuts and scenes superimposed over other scenes become more prominent as the surrealism replaces reality. Even how Schaefer shoots characters in some scenes changes as he focuses instead on other objects onscreen, panning away as dialogue is still being spoken as if the camera was unattended. All these choices accomplish the task of telling the overall story, which is a bold, impressive swing from such a young director. While most might be overwhelmed in their debut and focus on singular aspects like screenplay or photography, Schaefer shines as a multi-dimensional craftsman, using all of his tools to deliver the story he wants to tell.
The bottom line.
In a world filled with superhero movies, reboots, and everything in between, it’s rare to see a film like Giving Birth to a Butterfly still breaking through the noise in its own way. Films that are artistic, not for the sake of being arthouse, but with a more authentic, self-expressed authenticity.
What it lacks in entertainment value it gains in being a realized, artistic vision. So if you happen to be a sophomore film student or AP English teacher, then, well, this one’s for you.
Giving Birth to a Butterfly is now available to stream on Fandor, as well as on-demand on major digital platforms. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Cinedigm.
GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY - 5/10