Little explosions run throughout Tolga Karacelik’s “Butterflies,” but they aren’t necessarily the ones heard all the time by the residents of Hasanlar Village in Turkey where the chickens’ proclivity for eating pebbles has become an issue when stray gunpowder has inadvertently entered their diet. Instead, it is the naturally combustible relationship between three siblings – Cemal (Tolga Tekin), Suzan (Tugce Altug) and Kenan (Bartu Küçükçaglayan) – brought together by a phone call from their father Mazhar, who hasn’t spoken to any of them in at least 20 years, if not 30, asking them to come back to their childhood home. As it has long been in the Effendi family, ever since the matriarch took her life when the children were adolescents, there was little explanation for the request, leaving Cemal, Suzan and Kenan to create their own conclusions, all at odds with each other.
Although you know it must be serious, Karacelik let’s you know there’s going to be some silliness in “Butterflies” from the start, establishing that it’s good timing rather than familial considerations that bring the trio together to go see their dad. Each is stuck in an unhappy place in their lives, with the eldest Cemal, wearing a full-on spacesuit while lobbying the German government to send him to space as a frustrated astronaut who’s tired of budget cuts that prevent him from fulfilling his full potential. Likewise, Kenan isn’t exactly doing what he imagined either in his chosen profession of acting, doing voiceover work for talking animal movies, and Suzan has already told her husband she plans to leave him, though he pays so little attention to anything she says that he hasn’t gotten the message. When Cemal gets the call from Mazhar, he sees an opportunity to go on the adventure that has eluded him, while Suzan’s looking forward to just getting out of town, leaving Kenan as the holdout that takes some convincing to get into the car, resentful of Cemal’s enthusiasm as well as other things that come to the surface later.
Cemal’s delight at announcing he’s secured a rental, saying “This will be an easy trip,” all but assures it won’t be, but Karacelik spends less time on the road than one would expect, getting far more mileage out of the trio’s individual emotional journeys once they arrive in Hasanlar. Besides giving each the time to have their own stories at the start of “Butterflies,” the writer/director is attentive to Cemal, Suzan and Kenan throughout as you can see exactly how each were shaped by the absence of their father, the premature death of their mother and the relationships that were rewired when they processed those things in their own unique way. They not only see the world differently from one another, but their cockeyed perspectives contribute to the film’s biting humor, where they’re somehow seem unfazed by the aforementioned exploding chickens and as apt to get into a fight with each other as they are to defend their siblings’ honor to strangers.
Tekin, Altug and Küçükçaglayan all make an immediate impression, but they grow even more intriguing as the film wears on, with Küçükçaglayan in particular giving a soulful performance as Kenan, the most wounded of the three. They, along with Karacelik, strike just the right balance in feeling suddenly unburdened by leaving their frustrating present situations only to be forced to relitigate the past upon returning to their childhood home and while that leads to quite a few dramatically tense moments, it makes the relief that often follows all the more satisfying. As a result, “Butterflies” feels as airy as the village it’s set in, yet still packs a punch in showing how the distance between a family can make people as foreign to one another as how far away they may live.