Vague Visages’ Giving Birth to a Butterfly review contains minor spoilers. Theodore Schaefer’s 2021 movie stars Annie Parisse, Gus Birney and Rachel Resheff. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Giving Birth to a Butterfly bridges two worlds together with a thematically consistent tone. Theodore Schaefer’s double-themed debut feature masks itself as a standard character study, when in fact it’s more of an experimental production about platonic love and personal rebirth. Giving Birth to a Butterfly progressively improves from act to act, due to a cohesive narrative structure, strong character development and the director’s willingness to get weird.
Shot with 16mm film, Giving Birth to a Butterfly explores the interior lives of small town characters. Diana (Annie Parisse), a middle-aged married woman, struggles to imagine a brighter future while looking after her delusional husband, Daryl (Paul Sparks). Meanwhile, Diana’s misfit son begins a relationship with a young woman, Marlene (Gus Birney), who would rather admire the achievements of others than pursue her personal goals. Elsewhere, the girl’s mother, Monica aka Brigitte (Constance Shulman), refuses to let go of the past and won’t acknowledge her daughter’s pregnancy. Giving Birth to a Butterfly’s protagonists essentially live in a small fishbowl, where they wax poetic about the world without actually looking beyond their own. When Diana loses her savings in a stolen identity scheme, she hits the road and finds a big surprise at her destination.
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Aesthetically, Schaefer utilizes a brown-white color palette in three different settings. The suggestion? Giving Birth to a Butterfly seemingly takes place in a parallel universe. There’s little sound design during the first 55 minutes as Schaefer livens up a rather dull atmosphere with clever wordplay and engaging side players, such as Marlene’s monologue-loving mother and Diana’s husband, a man who muses about opening a restaurant called “Beautiful and Real Food” (which translates to BARF). Giving Birth to a Butterfly’s subtle visual design doesn’t necessarily inform viewers about the protagonists’ collective state of mind — there’s plenty of sharp dialogue for that — but it definitely sets the tone for numerous final act reveals.
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Giving Birth to a Butterfly may unnerve some viewers with its explanatory messaging during the second half. Recurring fish tank scenes underline the obvious (the main players feel trapped), and anyone familiar with Plato’s most well-known philosophical theories will understand Diana’s internal dilemma as she embarks on a road trip. But pacing is indeed key to Giving Birth to a Butterfly’s effectiveness as fantastical indie drama, as the final act is a major departure from everything that comes before. Crucially, the film benefits from several MacGuffins that expand the storyline into a commentary about dreams, nature and self-love.
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Surprisingly, it’s not Parisse and Birney who steal the show in Giving Birth to a Butterfly, but rather the aforementioned Shulman as Marlene’s mother, who performs for an imaginary audience like Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1984). “There’s tragedy all around us,” she says, not long before her daughter theorizes about a “beautiful and dead” existence. Shulman delivers a moving and incredibly sad performance, one that aligns with Gloria Swanson’s interpretation of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950).
Giving Birth to a Butterfly makes the case that anyone struggling to get by can find by peace by choosing self-love over self-harm and nature over technology. It’s also a master class in how minimal sound design in the front end can prep viewers for a well-placed musical moment in the back end. Giving Birth to a Butterfly is deceptively slick with its thematic concepts and directorial execution. Hopefully, indie audiences will find its front door and poke around. But don’t come knockin’ if you can’t handle creepy twins and a little introspection.
Giving Birth to a Butterfly releases on May 16, 2023 via Fandor.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
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