Theodore Schaefer’s Giving Birth to a Butterfly delivers a compelling, sensitive suburban nightmare
With compelling characters and an eerie take on suburbia, Theodore Schaefer’s debut film, Giving Birth to a Butterfly, will take you on a melancholic, unsettling road trip to self-discovery that’s well worth the watch.
Schaefer, who’s best known for his work as a producer on We’re All Going to the World Fair and The Adults, takes a bold step forward in curating this strikingly strange yet sensitive story.
The indie film unfolds as a commentary on the reality of working-class America, wherein a constant sense of anxiety is commonplace as families struggle to make ends meet and lose themselves in the process. In the case of Giving Birth to a Butterfly, we see this play out through a road trip between an unlikely pair of women troubled by their respective familial circumstances.
In searching for a way to finance her daughter’s college and her husband’s delusional dream of opening his own diner, Diana (Annie Parisse) falls victim to identity theft via an internet scheme. When her bank account is drained by the scammer, Diana enlists her son’s pregnant girlfriend, Marlene (Gus Birney), to help her track down the culprit.
Set in an unidentified decade and neighborhood, the film curates an unsettling parallel universe of characters that juxtapose the promises of the perfect American suburbia.
There’s Marlene’s mother, a delusional former actress hell-bent on reliving her apparent stardom through a make-believe press interview. Diana’s husband, Daryl, is set on opening his own diner despite being penniless and far from equipped for the job — and blames Diana for his inability to fulfill this dream.
Diana and Marlene’s road trip is full of profound dialogue, dripping with melancholic ambiguity as they bond over their dysfunctional families and respective false realities.
Perhaps the most compelling performance is Birney’s portrayal of Marlene, a complex character that defies the trope of the blonde that gets knocked up out of wedlock.
The audience, as well as Diana, quickly realizes she is actually wise beyond years due to having to parent herself from a young age. She seems to enter into a dream-like state as she engages in contemplative conversations with her boyfriend Drew, Diana, and seemingly herself about art, Homer, and the kind of mother she hopes to be.
Horror-like, somewhat disturbing music contributes to a surrealist atmosphere throughout the entirety of the film. With several elements of magical realism shot in pastel-hued 16mm film, it feels very much like a modern-day fairytale with a sinister twist.
Though enthralling and well delivered, Diana and Marlene’s dialogue at times feels forced in what seems like an effort to deliver themes on marriage, family, and rediscovering yourself. This somewhat contradicts the ethereal, dream-like world that doesn’t make much sense and should invite open-ended interpretation.