'The Butterfly Tree': Film Review | Melbourne 2017

A coming-of-age drama flecked with magical realism.

A boy mourning the death of his mother falls under the spell of a beautiful stranger in Priscilla Cameron’s debut feature.

Teenage lust is complicated by a serious Oedipal complex in The Butterfly Tree, the debut feature from Australian director Priscilla Cameron. Starring Melissa George (The Slap) as a former chanteuse living in the most unlikely residential home in Queensland — a sequin-filled florist's shop and greenhouse that Baz Luhrmann would be envious of — this rather underpowered tale of sexual awakening and grief proceeds at a leisurely pace before a couple of late scenes that strive to outdo each other for sheer melodramatic overreach. Screening in the Toronto International Film Festival's Discovery sidebar next month after premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the film's Mount Tambourine locales and strong performances from a cast led by Aussie tyro Ed Oxenbould (The Visit) aren't enough to make up for a tonal palette most charitably described as ambitious.

Oxenbould's first international gig was in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which might as well be the title of this one. He plays Fin, the recently motherless son of a community college teacher, Alan (The Daughter's Ewen Leslie). Dad is dealing with his grief by sleeping with a student (Sophie Lowe, shading the coquettishness that has become her specialty since Beautiful Kate with sly humor otherwise absent here), while Fin takes refuge at the canopied foot of the titular backyard tree, where he used to hang out with his painter mother.

Expanding on the premise of her 2012 short Beetle Feeders, Cameron's bereft young hero is a budding lepidopterist with a bedroom full of insects on the wall. The odd surrealist touch, in which digital butterflies flit around Fin in azure swirls, underlines his status as a loner with his head in the clouds. Beetle Feeders lenser Jason Hargreaves girds that impression by frequently shooting him from above, as Fin cycles around the lushly green byways of his hometown. These jaunts are accompanied by a medley of pop tracks, from Lene Lovich's 1979 hit "Lucky Number" to contemporary numbers from songbirds such as Gin Wigmore and Shana Halligan.

The boy's hobby provides the pretext for his father's meet-cute with Evelyn (George), after Alan pulls his vintage convertible over to inspect a glass display case she's discarded on the front lawn. Dressed by costume designer Chrissy Flannery in a series of vintage swing dresses and head wraps, Evelyn smokes in her greenhouse while gliding around on roller blades, her hair curled in an updo straight out of Mad Men. Fin first glimpses this mysterious fantasy figure through the window, dancing in her butterfly-winged burlesque costume. Her life on stage is never mentioned, though the pills close to hand hint at one reason for her retirement from it. What little we know hints at past trauma, with Evelyn’s abusive ex-husband glimpsed briefly trying to tear the handle off her front door.

When Fin enters her shop, Evelyn offers him a camera and then a job. By way of thanks, the teen swipes a roll of negatives from her desk and has it developed by a moony-eyed girl working at the local chemist (Ella Jaz Macrokanis in a thankless role summarily ditched by the director's script, never to be heard from again). The photos reveal a naked Evelyn in all her considerable glory, and the boy's growing fascination with her is complicated by anger directed at his father for elbowing his way into the picture — and possibly into Evelyn's affections. That jealousy culminates in a double-whammy act of revenge that brings into relief the boy's lingering resentment over his mother's death, which is flashed back to by editor Rodrigo Balart (Red Dog: True Blue) in a moment of horror the hitherto breezy film can't quite pull off.

Ditto's Evelyn's declining physical condition, which Fin seems to consider a selfish inconvenience, obstructing his appreciation of her good looks. The caterpillar-to-butterfly rebirth of Fin and his father is the film's focus, whereas Evelyn's interior life gets short shrift, despite George's best efforts in fleshing out her thinly sketched enigma of a character. As her suitor, Leslie revisits the harried single father role he essayed in David Michôd's Netherland Dwarf, bringing a youthful defensiveness to his portrait of a man in a fugue-state who is confused by his child's rage. Oxenbould himself is a more convincing hangdog than horndog, and just as well; by the end he's gained a mother.

Production company: Midwinter Films
Cast: Melissa George, Ed Oxenbould, Ewen Leslie, Sophie Lowe
Director-screenwriter: Priscilla Cameron
Producer: Bridget Callow-Wright
Director of photography: Jason Hargreaves
Production designer: Charlie Shelley
Costume designer: Chrissy Flannery
Editor: Rodrigo Balart
Composer: Caitlin Yeo
Sound designer: Emma Bortignon
Casting: Nikki Barrett, Peter Rasmussen
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival

97 minutes