Fittingly for something so purposefully lyrical and light, Giving Birth to a Butterfly opens with a poem: Mina Loy's "Love Songs (section III)," from which the title is taken. A Dadaist, her words seem fitting for a strange and fragile story of family, identity, and the unlikely directions of a search for self.
The family in question isn't in crisis, but as washed out as the color selection of Theodore Schaefer's directorial debut. Mother Diana (Annie Parisse) sells wedding dresses while diner worker dad Daryl (Paul Sparks) dreams of having his own business. She seems politely disquieted when son Drew (My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell it So's Owen Campbell) arrives home unexpectedly with the very pregnant Marlene (Gus Birney, I'm Thinking of Ending Things), while Daryl is all big smiles and offers to share food. Who Butterfly is even about doesn't become transparent until Diana and Marlene set off on an impromptu road trip, away from their mundane jobs into a peculiar next door.
It's not the high strangeness of David Lynch (although dream logic and symbolism starts to play a role) but a more suburban and restrained surrealism, built around themes of duality and birth. Characters fall away, which can be frustrating if you've become at all invested in any pairing - and Campbell and Birney's charming, wistful young love is so endearing that his exit may disappoint (for those that enjoy big, quirky characters, the same may be true with Daryl, a goof with dreams that crumble under the slightest contact).
But shedding and transformation are what Butterfly is about, and the removal of characters is essential and inevitable. What they're replaced with is sometimes heavy handed, sometimes transformative imagery, as Diane's road trip spirals more inwardly contemplative, and her destination becomes a cocoon of one's own. As a story of female empowerment, Butterfly flitters away from the "power" part, instead centering on what it is to find peace with oneself. In this, it becomes metaphorically rather than narratively fascinating, with a few unanswered questions and what-nexts left hanging. But butterflies are fragile creatures, and Butterfly feels more born to be admired than dissected.
Giving Birth to a Butterfly screens as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival running Aug. 5-25. Info and virtual passes at fantasiafestival.com.
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