‘Giving Birth to a Butterfly’ Review: Melancholy and Menace

“Giving Birth to a Butterfly,” Theodore Schaefer’s beautifully peculiar debut feature, strikes a balance between tender and vaguely unsettling, an effect similarly achieved by the work of David Lynch. I hate to use “Lynchian,” a term frequently — and slovenly — invoked for films with a merely surrealist bent. But Schaefer’s film, also steeped in a distinctly American nostalgia, more than deserves the description.

In this uncanny indie, we’re plunged into an American no-place, where a suburban father, Daryl (Paul Sparks), plans to open a diner despite not having any money; and where a former actress named Monica (Constance Shulman, channeling Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”) prepares for a big interview that will never happen. Opposite these tragic figures is Daryl’s wife, Diane (Annie Parisse), and Monica’s daughter Marlene (Gus Birney) — two women worn down by the follies of their loved ones.

Marlene is pregnant, and her boyfriend Drew (Owen Campbell) — Diane’s son — wants to raise the baby though he’s not the biological father. Diane, a pharmacist, bristles at the idea. Daryl’s restaurant scheme has the couple pinching pennies, and worse, Diane soon discovers that her bank account has been drained by online scammers. She was duped, she admits to Marlene, led astray by the kind of optimism that blinds.

The two women track down the identity thief — a GPS point on Diane’s computer flashes in the middle of a perfectly spiral road — and head to the ominous location.

They bond during the drive over, though their heady dialogue works only somewhat. Paradoxically, it leaves little room for ambiguity amid images, captured on lush 16mm by the cinematographer Matt Clegg, that lovingly summon the strangeness of everyday life (pet fish, spilled fruit, and more than one pair of twins). The mannered, intentionally stilted performances give the drama a stagey feel, which vibes with the film’s ethereal aesthetics. But the forced profundity of the “Butterfly” script undermines the film’s enthralling sense of atmosphere, which drips with melancholy, menace and wonder.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 17 minutes. Watch on Fandor.

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