Following the death of his mother, 13 year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould) has retreated into a fantasy world of butterflies and other insects. Meanwhile his father Al (Ewen Leslie) drowns his sorrows in a sea of one-night stands and ill-advised short-term relationships. When Evelyn (Melissa George) moves into the neighbourhood to set up a new florist, she becomes the object of affection for both Fin and Al – and ultimately brings their own bitter conflict to the surface.
The Butterfly Tree marks the feature debut of director Priscilla Cameron. It is a bold and promising work, rich in imagery and led by uniformly strong performances. The visuals are the most arresting aspect of the film, grabbing the eye with a bold use of colour and occasional sequences of magical realism. Fin’s dream world is rendered very effectively with a combination of live-action and animation. Many directors seem afraid of using colour. Cameron is absolutely not one of them, and despite its limited budget this is one of the most eye-catching and beautiful Australian films of recent years.
The film’s narrative has a pleasing intimacy to it, effectively working as a four-hander. As Fin, Ed Oxenbould delivers a very strong performance. He expresses the most awkward sort of teenage sexuality and frustration, as well as a badly buried grief and rage over his mother’s death. Fin undeniably makes very poor choices over the course of the film, but it is Oxenbould’s acting that ensures he remains sympathetic and ultimately very easy to identify with.
Melissa George gives her career-best as Evelyn, who seems almost an unrealistic romantic fantasy at first before the film digs a little deeper and reveals the real person underneath the surface. She is a particularly well-crafted character, and George is equally strong in both the romantic and the more grounded scenes. Her character grows in importance as the film develops, which is a very good thing. She may start as the pointy-end of an odd love triangle, but by the film’s conclusion she absolutely has her own central role.
The cast is rounded out by Ewen Leslie, one of Australia’s most reliable and watchable actors, and Sophie Lowe, who plays Shelley: Al’s latest and most inappropriate girlfriend so far. In many respects Lowe is burdened with a stereotypical character – the evil ex-girlfriend – but thankfully Cameron does provide her with a few key moments in which a more rounded and believable character emerges. For his own part Leslie is excellent, and like Oxenbould develops an identifiable and sympathetic character despite his own poor choices and behaviour.
If there is a key drawback to the film it is that the screenplay relies a little too heavily on well-worn territory, with plot elements that have been run over and over again in countless previous dramas. The treatment of those elements is rarely short of excellent, however they do create a slightly unwelcome familiarity as the film goes on. In the end it is not the story that viewers are likely to remember: instead it will be the strong performances, and particularly the engaging and memorable visual images. This film may be narratively unadventurous, but it is aesthetically wonderful.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.