“Actors have no morals,” Marlene (Gus Birney) can be heard saying off-camera in “Giving Birth to a Butterfly,” the seething conviction with which it’s made not confirming the truth of it, but rather director Theodore Schaefer’s presentation which is made to feel that everything that’s happening in front of your eyes is somewhat false. Shot on 16mm film with no interest in hiding the rounded corners of the frame that let you know you’re watching a movie, the slightly surreal story of a family falling apart as it’s set to expand introduces itself with a collection of performances rather than the suggestion you’re sneaking into their home, as much for the benefit of each other as for an outside audience.
Daryl (Paul Sparks), the dim-witted patriarch of the clan, actually lets out an exaggerated “sigh” to announce his arrival, knowing that his wife Diana (Annie Parisse) and daughter Danielle (Rachel Resheff) upstairs might not take notice without it. Ironically, they’re in far more pain than he is, long neglected in his quixotic quest to open up a restaurant of his own and Diana has taken to selling dresses on eBay with Danielle’s help to stash away money as supplementary income to her work as a pharmacist, unsure of what she’ll do with it but perhaps buying some time to help her daughter figure out what she wants to do with her life. The couple has a son Andrew (Owen Campbell) as well, who has gotten by on a job at a pet store, but soon he will have a family of his own to feed when he’s brought home Marlene, pregnant by another man but fortunate to have a new boyfriend so eager to step into the role of being a dad, telling her “It’s the only thing I can be good at — I’ve seen too many bad ones.”
“Giving Birth to a Butterfly” is immediately transfixing visually, with intriguing contradictions in every frame when the fuzziness of the celluloid lends both a warmth and a melancholy to the proceedings and there is an inviting familiarity to each scene in the family’s home, but the borders of their experience are so clearly defined and often isolating. But the real brilliance of what Schaefer and co-writer Patrick Lawler are up to is in the long game of the 75-minute feature, as stilted dialogue between the characters and bits of absurdist humor all emerge from how little attention they all pay to one another, either in their own head out of self-protection or selfishness. Marlene’s contempt for actors stems from her own mother (Birney’s real-life mom Constance Shulman) wasting her days away at home like a modern-day Norma Desmond, waiting for someone to interview her like the screen icon she sees herself as, yet just as Andrew is ready to assume the part of fatherhood to her child, she finds that Diana could be a mother to her when the two make a drive together upstate after Diana learns her credit card has been compromised.
As much concern as there is about money matters within the family, “Giving Birth to a Butterfly” is far more interested in the existential crises at hand for them all, each wondering about their purpose and applying a fake it till you make it approach until it’s attainable or they find out what it is. For Daryl, it’s as simple as putting on an apron even when the family sits down to a dinner of Chinese takeout to feel as if he’s asserted more control over his life, but for Marlene and to an even greater extent, Diana, the act of realizing who they are meant to be takes far more time and introspection and Schaefer shrewdly lets the theatricality of the actors’ work fall away as the the world around them looks more like a stage, cleverly conjuring the game of make believe that everyone plays in their daily lives.