THE BUTTERFLY TREE: Starring: Melissa George, Ewen Leslie, Ed Oxenbould, and Sophie Lowe. Directed by Priscilla Cameron. Rated M (Mature themes, sex scene, nudity and coarse language). 96 min.
This Australian film tells the story of an ex-burlesque queen whose eagerness for life causes complications for a single father and his teenage son. The film was filmed on location in the Mount Tambourine area of Southern Queensland, and is the debut film for writer and director, Priscilla Cameron.
The film involves three main characters: A young teenager, Fin (Ed Oxenbould), who has lost his mother and grieves very much for her death; his father, Al (Ewen Leslie), who has lost his wife; and Evelyn (Melissa George), who is newly arrived in town, and to whom both of them are attracted.
Evelyn (who has “loved well, but not wisely”) likes to dress extravagantly. She lives with a fierce appetite for life, and surrounds herself with plants and insects. Glamour is important to her, and she routinely prefers an ideal world of her own choosing, to a more realistic one. Scarred in life by an abusive ex-husband, she tries to structure a new environment around her that provides her with some escape from a traumatic past. Her presence in town affects Fin and Al seriously. Torn between teenage physical desire and misplaced affection for a second mother, Fin becomes infatuated with Evelyn, and his world spins out of control when he sees that his father Al (Ewen Leslie), who teaches at a community college in town, is falling for the same woman.
The mix of emotions in the film is complex. Al grieves over the loss of a loving wife, and is alienated from his son; Fin is grieving over losing a mother and thinks he has found another; and Evelyn has significant emotional problems. Because Al and Fin both like Evelyn, their attachment to Evelyn makes things worse for everybody concerned. Al doesn’t communicate at all well with his son; Fin is angry with his father; and Evelyn is drawing Al and his son into a fantasy world of flowers and butterflies, that helps them both with their sadness, but in doing that, she is drawing Al and Fin further away from each other.
This is an eccentric tale of grief management that operates at multiple levels. Fin wants whatever he can find to ease his pain. Al is looking for comfort, and has sought solace through an illicit affair he is having with Shelley (Sophie Lowe), one of the students in his creative writing class at college. Attracted to Evelyn, he calls a halt to his relationship with Shelley, and Shelley doesn’t like it and fights back. Al and Fin want Evelyn, for different reasons, and Evelyn knows she cannot fill either of their expectations. The problem is solved by a surprise twist in the plot line, which is contrived, but provides a solution,
This is an Australian film that is distinctive in style and tone. Its photography has visual energy. There are dream sequences that creatively reflect the film’s emotional moods, and the movie uses colour and lighting very vividly. Evelyn’s costume designs are eccentric, reminding the viewer of the exuberances one often sees in the movies of Baz Luhrmann. Melissa George boldly and vibrantly takes the role of Al’s and Fin’s fantasy figure, and, as an attractive woman newly arrived in town, her oddities, plausibly entice Fin and Al. Oxenbould and Leslie play their roles well, and Priscilla Cameron’s direction is confident and assured.
This is also a coming-of-age story for Fin that flows from lessons learnt in life, and love. It mixes fantasy escape with inner turmoil, and shows how maturity can grow out of adolescence angst. As it moves to its conclusion, positive messages come to the fore. Al reaches out to his son; Fin learns to forgive his father, and comes to appreciate what he thought he had lost; and just as importantly, Al learns emotionally what it means to have his son back once more.
The film is over-sentimentalised and melodramatic at times, and is contrived in its plot line. But the mix works. This is a home-grown movie that conveys very considerable energy and vitality.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released November 23rd., 2017