By JEAN WEST
AWARD-winning writer/director, Priscilla Cameron, weaves a visually vibrant tale of everyday tragedy in The Butterfly Tree, her first feature debut.
From the outset she paint bombs us with a sumptuous, psychedelia and stuffs us to the gills with kitsch in a heady, lavish look at escapism as medicine for bereavement.
Fin (Ed Oxenbould) and his father Al (Ewen Leslie), are grieving the loss of his mother and turn to a fantasy world that brings comfort for a while. The 13-year-old boy, entering puberty, discovers Evelyn (Melissa George), an exotic Burlesque dancer and florist, who is new to town.
Barely a grown-up herself, she gives the besotted youth a camera and encourages his creativity, from her enchanting glass house in Queensland.
Predictably his crush deepens on this woman, who echoes his mother’s tenderness but also helps harness his own confusing hormonal rushes as he grapples with adolescence.
Al is a school teacher who has been dabbling in an illicit relationship with a pupil (the excellent Sophie Lowe), that has become toxic and dangerous for his career, reputation and well-being. As he struggles to exit the maladaptive situation that is galloping out of control, the awkward, young boy keeps his mother alive in his mind, worshipping her photograph at a magical shrine filled with dreamy blue butterflies and uses his new camera to record his own rite of passage and, secretively, his Dad’s furtive affair.
The camera detail of the bugs, butterflies and botanicals and the vintage passions and ornaments of the leading lady is truly stunning. But this bold, enchanting visual charisma sadly overrides scripting clarity and dilutes the impact of what could have matured into an edgy drama about a long-simmering family tension.
When Al becomes acquainted with Evelyn, the strange glittering fairy in her bucolic haven, he is similarly beguiled by her charms. But the childlike woman, who dresses up in spangly outfits and roller-skates in gold boots like a Baz Luhrmann femme fatale, is using this theatre to mask her own pain.
After fleeing an abusive relationship, it also becomes clear that she is unwell. As tension between father and son mounts and the surreal situation at school unravels, parent and child clash with serious consequences.
The surreal film unravels slowly and the hypnotic pantomime that shields the boy from his own loss delivers a lightness that carries the audience into the darker themes. But its amplified focus on production quality, styling and a great musical scoring often leaves the viewers scratching their heads over nuance of plot. We never, for example, figure out where the father/son stand-off originates and the final scene becomes a rather beautiful but clunky farce.
Nonetheless, the characters are all assuredly played and pull together some of the holes that might be stitched with better funding. It’s a glitter ball watch and a brave offering from mesmeric start to finish, an exercise in lost playfulness.
Bohemian, breezy, mournful, and elegant in parts, it wants only for sturdy scripting to net down those wings and stop it floating beyond our collective appeal.