By Robert Koehler
Is writer-director Priscilla Cameron kidding or not? The recent Melbourne Film Festival reception to her first feature The Butterfly Tree charitably suggests that this treacly tale may be meant in the spirit of camp. But camp must have a funny side, and there isn’t a moment in this quasi-magical realist coming-of-age story that can make one even crack a smile. A young teen lad named Fin (note—no second “n”), a character who seems to be hatched from the seeds of Baz Luhrmann and Guillermo del Toro, has built an altar to his late mother at the base of a tree next to his home. The tree, he envisions in his trippy-dippy daydreams, is also home to countless cerulean butterflies. Oh, and of course, he and his dad Al, a bedraggled community college poetry teacher, are on the outs with each other.
Each is soon attracted to the willowy wiles of flower-shop owner Evelyn (Melissa George, who takes over the movie), who herself holds some dark secrets, and spends her free time in her bedroom dancing in a…get it…butterfly costume. Oedipal wackiness, arch stabs at farce, and nickel-and-dime fantasy frolics ensue, producing a seriously disagreeable stir of unmixable narrative and stylistic ingredients. What’s most unreadable in this stewpot are Cameron’s intentions. Is this the product of a genuine naïf, believing in the power of fantasy and imagination to heal all wounds? Of a calculating operator trying to find a fresh commercial spin on YA fiction? Or of a fan of camp trying to get there, and not knowing how?