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Put A Spoon Under Your Pillow

What kind of a film viewer are you? I get the people who work jobs that they quietly despise. They come home with little to show for it beyond a small paycheck and a large feeling of frustration. All they want from their cinematic experience is to relax, be entertained, watch something to take their mind off the whipsawing in today’s world between existential horror or existential drudgery. They’ll watch something like Fast X & think, “Eh, that was okay.” Sometimes, okay is enough.

I also get the people who want to jump into the deep end of the pool, artistically speaking. Horror movies fill them with contempt. Superhero movies fill them with rage. They want to barrel toward the most challenging cinematic art they can find, dig into it to unearth the subtext.* These folks live on the far frontiers of cinema, or at least have a summer cottage there.

I like my cinematic diet to be fairly balanced. Sometimes I need something ridiculous like Cocaine Bear, and surfing the endorphin wave helps to take my mind off the chaos of everyday life. But I can’t forget Brando’s line from Apocalypse Now, where he says, “Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror.” I don’t understand that quote to mean Michael Myers. Instead, sometimes we need to look darkness and incomprehensibility full in the face. Serious Movies don’t have to be the equivalent of eating your vegetables, but they can be a challenge.

That’s too many words (Sorry!) to tell you that I want to be challenged. Yet I worry I’m not clever enough to figure out challenging films, that my Weird-Shit-O-Meter will be pinging off the charts & my response will be, “Yep! Pretty weird!” In large part, That’s how I felt about Giving Birth to a Butterfly, an independent film that starts strong and ends in a baffling place.

We meet Diana (Annie Parisse), a woman of profound unhappiness. She’s married to Daryl (Paul Sparks), a short-order cook with delusions of grandeur. Daryl is convinced he’ll open a restaurant one day. A great one. He wears chef whites at home, and seems to be a serious adherent to the “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy. 

Daryl constantly tries to push his dream onto the rest of the family. Their daughter Danielle (Rachel Resheff) goes along with it, perhaps even believes in him, and they toss around restaurant names. Their son Drew (Owen Campbell) is politely disinterested in the family chaos. You see, his girlfriend Marlene (Gus Birney) is pregnant. Drew isn’t the father, but he wants to be a Dad. Marlene is cool with that and, apropos of nothing, Daryl invites her to move into their already too small house.

That could have been the straw that broke Diana’s back. It isn’t, and the real moment is when she discovers she’s the victim of a cruel online scam. What little money the rapidly growing family had is gone. Daryl is as dumb as toast, and the kids are just starting out their lives, so it’s up to Diana to try and get the money back.

To do that, Diana recruits Marlene. The young woman solves the mysteries of the internet and finds the address of the scammer. With that, the two women set off on an odyssey. There are also two sets of twins, a toy train that’s not really a toy, a conductor who inconveniently has no face, and a ham-fisted metaphor involving a butterfly.

Look…I don’t want it to sound like I hated Giving Birth to a Butterfly or that it’s an incompetently made film. Neither assertion is true. Director Theodore Schaefer has shot his film on 16mm, and the slight jerkiness of the film creates a surreal, dreamlike feeling. Odds are Schaefer had a modest budget and did the best with what he had. When Schaefer is good, he’s very good. Moments showing Diana’s claustrophobic home life are cleverly shot and edited, creating a real feeling of suffocation. The majority of the film is mildly surreal, and most of the time is spent observing the behavior of the characters.

That’s all good, but what’s less good is the screenplay by Schaefer and Patrick Lawler. Part of the problem is that there isn’t really a narrative thrust so to speak. We know Diana is done with her clown-ass husband, and that she feels conflicted by the presence of the quite-pregnant Marlene. We also know she wants to get her stolen money back. What is she doing to get it back and how is she going to change her life? The script doesn’t seem interested. It’s more interested in moments of severe navel gazing, particularly in the third act. Characters make lofty speeches that don’t sound like real humans speaking to each other. A faceless conductor literally hands a butterfly to Diana. Is it possible that I’m missing some of the themes of the film because I’m a bit stupid sometimes? Absolutely! But it feels like the script is at war with itself, and the genuinely emotional moments where people talk to and learn about each other get shoved aside in favor of pretentious imagery.

The good news is there are a couple of performances that lift up the film and nearly save it. As Diane, Annie Parisse gives a complicated and intelligent performance. She shows us multiple sides of Diane, the annoyance and despair toward her husband, the desperation that her meager savings are gone, and the curiosity and gradual affection toward Marlene. Speaking of Marlene, Gus Birney’s natural acting brings a fully realized character to life. Marlene is an individual, and not the kind of “quirky” character that populates independent film. You probably know people like Marlene, someone a little fearful of the future and a little confident that she’ll figure things out, one way or the other. Birney and Parisse keep things grounded and genuine, even when the film refuses to do so.

Is Giving Birth to a Butterfly a movie designed to appeal to audiences looking for Friday night fun? Absolutely not. I think Theodore Schaefer has made exactly the film he wanted, at least I hope so. Someone out there is going to see his film and fall desperately in love with the nigh-impenetrable vibe. I know I’m not that person. I’m hoping you might be.


*Not always, but sometimes these people are similar to the folks bragging about seeing Radiohead play their first gig in a garage.

Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.


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