The complexities of a small family dealing with grief are explored in this new coming-of-age film by Priscilla Cameron, The Butterfly Tree. Schoolboy Fin (Ed Oxenbould) struggles to adjust to life after his mother's death; he builds a shrine for her and retreats into his world of collecting and being in the presence of butterflies. His father Al (Ewen Leslie), a teacher, finds solace in sleeping with women, including one of his community college students, Shelley (Sophie Low). Both Fin and Al find themselves attracted to the vivacious newcomer to the town, the burlesque dancer-cum-florist, skilled roller-blader, Evelyn (Melissa George).
Evelyn is larger than life. She captivates Fin with her butterfly costume and he becomes attracted to her in a maternal but simultaneously sensual way. This attraction is more than just physical, however; The two connect on a spiritual level, conveyed spectacularly by changes in lighting and imagery that are exaggerated and fantastical. Butterflies are a constant theme throughout the movie, and Evelyn herself is the personification of one. She is beautiful and carefree, but, like the butterfly has only a brief life, she has her own tragic story to reveal.
Things come to a head when Fin realises that Al is seeing Evelyn and buried resentments resurface, manifested in the truly thoughtless, aggressive acts that are teenage outbursts. Al suffers most as the prime target of Fin’s frustrations and one feels for him as the widower coping with his loss and struggling to help his son come to terms with losing his mother. All the characters are three-dimensional and likeable, despite their flaws; they are human and this very vulnerability could hardly be captured more beautifully than in this movie.
Melissa George is stunning as Evelyn, she exudes confidence but somehow manages to show glimpses of fragility that leaves one wanting to know more about her. Ed Oxenbould and Ewen Leslie similarly give excellent performances; Leslie is convincing as a father who has made some bad decisions in the face of grief, and Ed Oxenbould gives a nuanced performance as a teenager dealing with the loss of his mother.
Despite the gloomy subject matter the movie remains largely light-hearted, due to two factors: firstly the hyper-real world that Finn and Evelyn escape to, and secondly the presence of Sophie Low as the quirky, amusing, inappropriately selfish Shelley who injects humour into the movie in what should be some very depressing scenes.
The Butterfly Tree revels in the whimsical; the fantasy escape that Finn and Evelyn both need to come to terms with their circumstances. The director, Priscilla Cameron, merges the surreal world and reality with masterful ease making the movie itself beautiful to watch. The real world is rich and more than matches the fantasy world in its cinematography. The Butterfly Tree in essence is a beautiful allegory for the fleeting nature of life and our vulnerable, complicated and magical journey through it.
The Butterfly Tree opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 23rd.