'Float Like a Butterfly': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A tough girl's arduous journey throughg 1960s Ireland.

Carmel Winters' second feature revolves around a young Irish woman and aspiring boxer and her father, who has just been released from prison.

A proto-feminist tale told against the unlikely backdrop of highly traditional Ireland of the early 1960s, Float Like a Butterfly spins a yarn that’s simultaneously ingratiating and dispiriting. Small-scaled and rather depressing due to the appalling alcoholic behavior of the clan’s dissolute father, Carmel Winters’ second feature film strongly evokes a rural world stuck midway between restrictive age-old traditions and budding modern tendencies. Despite the strong female-empowerment angle, commercial prospects appear marginal.

Drink is at the center of most of the misfortune here. Perpetually sodden Michael (Dara Devaney), a handsome rascal with more than a passing resemblance to Colin Farrell, is a roamer whose family lives in a wagon on a beach in County Cork at the southwestern tip of Ireland. In an early scene, a police sergeant shoves Michael's wife down, accidentally killing her along with the child she’s bearing.

A few years later, Michael returns from incarceration to again take charge of his children, young son Patrick (Johnny Collins), who never does or says much, and mid-teens daughter Frances (Hazel Doupe), whose primary demeanor is one of fearless tenacity and toughness. This is something she needs under the more-than-desperate circumstances of her life. Michael shuns any notion of education for his kids — “No flesh of mine is going to no school,” he proudly announces — and he’s usually so pissed by midday that he’s no good for anything save getting into a brawl.

A keenness for fighting, in fact, is the primary thing Michael has instilled in his daughter. Built like a fire hydrant, Frances is constantly punching, bobbing and weaving; arguably, the best thing she’s inherited from her father is an enthusiasm for boxer Muhammad Ali, whose moves she tries to imitate, hence the film’s title.

In her father’s absence, Frances learned to fend for herself, but once returned he reasserts his malignant control, dragging his kids around the gorgeous, sparsely populated coast. In one surreal scene, the group comes upon a small outdoor boxing ring in which a black pugilist in a red robe prances around beneath a sign announcing the presence of “The Greatest.” “You’re not Muhammad Ali!,” Frances shrieks, steeling her determination to further emulate her idol and role model.

The most excruciating scene of parental misguidance has Frances being awakened late one night by a plastered Michael unwittingly dragging a sloshed woman into his daughter’s bed and trying to have sex with her. He spends his more sober moments trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter and an indifferent macho local lad; as far as Michael is concerned, if a girl is ready to bear children, it’s time for her to start doing so.

While the film waves its feminist intentions quite overtly, what comes across more strikingly is how much Ireland has changed over the past half-century. Although there’s scant mention of Catholicism and the church, the film stingingly reminds of how pervasive religious and traditional dictates were up until a generation or two ago, how trapped in conventional ways children found themselves and how limited the options were.

As with her previous feature, the multi-generational suspense drama Snap in 2010, Winters is concerned here with the attempt of her characters to break with traditions and self-limiting behavior. There is punch to the writer-director’s storytelling, a vivid sense of the way people live and make do under trying circumstances and a sense of purpose that drives the characters and the drama. The finale doesn’t fully convince or pay off, but the turbulence and determination instill the film with a strong pulse that keeps it bobbing and weaving.

Production companies: Samson Films, Port Pictures
Cast: Hazel Doupe, Dara Devaney, Johnny Collins, Hilda Fay, Lalor Roddy
Director-screenwriter: Carmel Winters
Producers: Martina Niland, David Collins
Executive producer: Lesley McKimm
Director of photography: Michael Lavelle
Production designer: Toma McCullim
Editor: Julian Ulrichs
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)


103 minutes