Oz Film Festival: The Butterfly Tree Review
Thirteen-year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould) lives with his widowed father Al (Ewen Leslie). To everyone else, Fin seems to be coping with the loss of his mother, but secretly he catches butterflies in her honour and has created a small shrine in the woods. Al, a college teacher, is having an affair with one his students, Shelley (Sophie Lowe). However, into both of their lives comes Evelyn, who sets up a florists in town called Bloom. And both Al and Fin fall for her.
The Butterfly Tree, Priscilla Cameron's feature writing/directing debut after three short films, is a very colourful film. It's visually rich and if films could smell, the many flowers in it would make it overpowering. Some magical-realist touches contribute to the effect without, mostly, seeming too self conscious. While not every visual flourish works – there's a very awkward moment early on when Al reacts to Shelley reading a poem out in class, one that is clearly aimed at him - enough of them do to make this a film that stays with you afterwards, the sights and sounds rather than an especially strong story, though there is one.
The film has a deliberately timeless feel. We're in the recent past but it isn't specified when, roughly the 1980s: no one has a mobile phone or the internet and cameras have film in them. The music heard in The Butterfly Tree is from that decade and earlier, with Lene Lovich's “Lucky Number” turning up more than once, including over the end credits. It's a credit to the film that such self-absorbed characters manage to remain sympathetic, given that one of them is in a teacher/pupil relationship that is certainly inappropriate. Yet it's Shelley, the film's least likeable character, who has the line of dialogue where she says that she hates the word “inappropriate”, and you sense that the film is questioning what is and what isn't.
Evelyn seems to be aware of both male characters' attraction to her, though not of their relationship to each other - and it's not just the young men's hearts she sets a-flutter; the women too. Although for most of the film we see her from outside, Evelyn is at the heart of the film. She has a past as a burlesque dancer, and Cameron has no qualms about putting her on display, celebrating not just her figure but the laughter lines of a woman entering early middle age. It's not until late on that we, and the other characters, find out that she has some battles of her own to fight, and Cameron doesn't fight shy of showing us the toll that that has taken as well, with the film's colour palette taking on a cooler tone than previously.
All four lead actors are excellent, and Jason Hargreaves' cinematography is a standout. The film's visual flair makes this a fine debut feature from Priscilla Cameron and I look forward to what she does next.
The Butterfly Tree had its London premiere at the Oz Film Festival, followed by a Q & A with Priscilla Cameron. It is released in British cinemas on 13 July.