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Can bullying be defeated by self-bullying, or public threats of self-harm? That’s the premise of Paul A. Kaufman’s Butter, in which a lonely, obese teen tries to shock classmates into silence by threatening to eat himself to death. Adapting Erin Jade Lange’s YA novel of the same name, the pic benefits from a likeable cast, albeit one whose middle-of-the-road flavor isn’t ideal for a premise that screams for black comedy or otherwise edgy treatment. While it may resonate for some young viewers, anyone whose reality really resembles that of the film’s protagonist should probably look elsewhere.
Alex Kersting plays the title character, whose nickname derives from a repulsively cruel prank some boys played on him a couple of years ago. Silent at school, he avoids all non-essential socializing now and spends his days practicing tenor sax in his room. The school’s solicitous band director, played by Mykelti Williamson, begs the talented kid to join his group, where he’d be a star, but the last thing Butter wants is for anyone to have another reason to look at him. His sole social activity is a chat-room romance with the cutest girl in school — McKaley Miller’s Anna, who believes she’s corresponding with a sensitive hunk from a nearby town.
After his most recent lunch-hour humiliation, Butter builds a website to share with those who troll him. He declares that, a month from now on New Year’s Eve, he’ll live-stream his final meal — a splurge so over-the-top it will kill him on camera. (Nobody around seems to be old enough to make a Monty Python joke about the premise.)
Oddly, when he arrives at campus the next day, people are going out of their way to be nice to him. Two popular boys take him under their wings, introducing him to the cool kids and showing an interest in his life. Though his voiceover (an overused device here) reveals that he’s confused by the attention, Butter exhibits none of the awkwardness you’d expect. He’s perfectly, implausibly relaxed being the center of attention.
That’s one of several ways in which Butter fails to convince us what we’re seeing is real. A movie like Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer demonstrates how teenage social groups can surprisingly embrace an awkward kid they might otherwise mock; even when happy, though, these developments are rarely uncomplicated.
Viewers spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is not the same thing as being kept in suspense. There’s no friction in, say, the generically friendly way Anna treats Butter as they spend more time together. And while the script acknowledges it, the film doesn’t dramatize Butter’s complicated feelings for his mother (Mira Sorvino), who is torn between preparing meals that could help him lose weight and fixing heaps of every sugary thing he craves.
Kaufman, a TV veteran whose last three directing credits were Christmas films, proves extremely literal-minded as the story progresses, spelling every development out for us. This goes from tedious to painful in the third act, when some inevitable ugly developments eventually lead everyone to learn, apologize for shortcomings, and promise to be better to each other.
Production company: Power of Us Entertainment
Cast: Alex Kersting, McKaley Miller, Adain Bradley, Jack Griffo, Matthew Gold, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, Ravi Patel
Director-screenwriter: Paul A. Kaufman
Producers: J. Todd Harris, Paul A. Kaufman, Christina Sibul
Director of photography: Greg Gardiner
Costume designer: Charlie Altuna
Editor: Garry M.B. Smith
Composer: Jeff Toyne
Casting director: Tannis Vallely
Venue: Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival (Screened online)
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival