Fantasia Film Festival
Diana (Annie Parisse), a pharmacist, lives with her husband Daryl (Paul Sparks) and two children, Drew (Owen Campbell) and Danielle (Rachel Resheff). Dealing with constant verbal abuse from her spouse, and stuck in an unfulfilled life, she one day discovers she has become the victim of identity theft, recruiting her son’s pregnant girlfriend Marlene (Gus Birney) to track down the perpetrators.
With a premise as such, it would be easy to assume this a buddy road movie, in which mutual respect and understanding is found between two opposing figures, or a Thelma and Louise-style caper in which a woman goes on a literal journey to escape her unrelenting husband. Neither is true however; Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a far more surreal affair, and not easily pinned down tonally.
Written by Patrick Lawler and Theodore Schaefer, and directed by the latter, the film is immediately visually captivating; shot on pastel 16mm, its grainy and textured dream-like imagery is arresting from the get – an opening shot of a wooden beam lit by the sun – to its final moments of clarity.
It’s a beautiful film to look at, but marred by its tendency to navel-gaze. The film works best when Diana and Marlene are interacting with one another on their road trip, but these moments are few and fleeting, and its impulse to have characters veer into self-indulgent monologues becomes grating, to say the least – not to mention stilted dialogue feeling more and more like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room as the film progresses.
What makes the film watchable (apart from its nifty 77-minute runtime) is the inherent likeability of its leading actors. Both Parisse, initially prickly but revealing herself to be a more open person, and Birney, whose subtlety brings a vulnerability and naturalistic style to her role, are genuinely compelling and captivating to watch, despite the difficult material they’re working with. It’s a testament to the talent of the two that they manage to surpass the film’s more pretentious qualities.
It’s subtlety is almost entirely non-existent, with the idea of emerging a cocoon as something other reflected in most of its more surreal moments, from an infuriating dream sequence (where the film truly exposes itself to more amateur techniques) in which Diana is literally shown a butterfly, to the theme of people having more than one dimension encapsulated by multiple sets of twins. A lack of subtlety isn’t always a bad thing, but there are some more obvious motifs used in Giving Birth…that don’t necessarily need to be present.
It’s deterioration into a borderline “so bad it’s good” feature in its final fifteen minutes (as opposed to its head-scratching yet intriguing first hour) is just about held up by some great performances, but it may be too surreal from some. A polarizing film, to be sure, and definitely not for the general masses – but, as it wraps up, there is a sense that that is exactly what Schaefer wants.