Written by Katherine Murray.
Rockhopper Productions’ first feature film, Drunken Butterflies, is a fun-to-watch experiment in filmmaking that’s focused on friendship between working-class Newcastle girls.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] To war[/caption]
“Would you rather have Tracy’s extensions or Tracy’s face?”
So begins a conversation between Tracy’s two best friends in Drunken Butterflies, the debut film from UK director Garry Sykes, now available on VOD.
Billed as a cross between “scripted reality TV” and narrative story-telling, Butterflies is a loosely plotted, largely improvised day-in-the-life movie about six fictional Newcastle teens and the shifting friendships between them. The film relied on its cast of young actors to develop and workshop the characters and story, following a 20-page outline, and portions of the footage were filmed directly by the actors, using phones and hand-held cameras.
In other words, it’s a lot like The Blair Witch Project, if The Blair Witch Project contained an extended dialogue about vajazzling and didn’t make you want to puke.
As the story begins, the film’s main character, Chloe, has just had a falling-out with the hard-as-nails Tracy, causing four of their friends to pick sides to the tune of The Pipettes’ aptly-chosen “Judy.”
The next 90 minutes track the group’s movements through the day, following them through minor acts of betrayal, sporadic outbursts of violence, and moments of genuine caring. Their lives are volatile, confusing, and uncertain, but their makeup looks really amazing.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Oh, Judy…[/caption]
As an experiment in film-making, Drunken Butterflies could have been more ambitious.
The film adopts a style that’s reminiscent of reality TV and documentaries, and there’s a self-referential scene toward the end, where two of the characters talk about how reality shows are all scripted, but there doesn’t seem to be a concrete message about the line between reality and fiction. Butterflies is more of a pastiche of different modes of representation, acknowledging that, in the age of reality TV and social media, the way that we present ourselves has changed. That those things are an extension of the fronts we already put up for the world.
It would have been nice if the film had done more with that idea, or delved deeper into questions of truth and personal identity – I don’t quite buy the press packet’s claim that “the lines between fiction and reality… crumble to nothing” because of this style – but the movie, I think, still succeeds in capturing something true.
While I didn’t grow up on the “Geordie Shore,” and can’t speak to how real that is, I recognize the girls in this movie as people who could have appeared in my own life – in some cases, as people who could have been me. I remember what it’s like to start a fight with someone just because. To stand there screaming the f-word, self-righteous, because you get off on the drama. To dare someone to hit you in the parking lot.
It’s a side of girlhood – and maybe a class-specific side of girlhood – that isn’t represented that often, and often isn’t represented in such a sympathetic way.
This is, first and foremost, a movie about female “toughness” – a quality that’s maybe less required of middle-class women, or is expressed by them in a different way. This is the toughness of physical fights – of being so hard that nothing can hurt you, because there’s a world of hurt waiting outside the front door.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] This is literally the same expression as my happy face[/caption]
As Butterflies starts to wind down, there are some plot threads that make less sense than they could, and some conflicts that seem to get resolved too easily, but the dominant theme is that life is an ongoing struggle. Each of the characters is fighting a private battle that sometimes puts her at odds with and sometimes makes her best friends with the others.
Life is chaotic and scary, and everyone’s just trying hard to survive.
Butterflies is also the rare film that focuses intently on relationships between girls, treating their interactions with boys as an afterthought. The event that sets everything in motion is the discovery that Chloe cheated on Tracy’s brother, Liam, but this isn’t a movie about whether Chloe and Liam will get back together – it’s about whether Chloe and Tracy will get back together. Liam is – in some cases, literally – pushed to the side while they argue about it.
Although gender isn’t the primary focus of the film, the story takes place in a setting where its heroes are, for the most part, menaced by cat-calls and threats of attack, where they talk to each other in front of a wall of pornography posted by boys. It’s uncomfortable to watch them turn their anger on “soft” targets – like a mild-mannered boy named Chris, whom they corner and bully – but there’s also something about that that rings true, even if the film doesn’t examine it at any great depth.
The decision to mold the characters based on the actors’ personalities means that even those with less experience come across as fairly convincing, and the use of hand-held cameras and cell phone video add a sense of immersion and reality to the experience.
For a film that was made on a pretty tight budget, Drunken Butterflies looks and sounds great – it’s an extremely watchable film that’s visually interesting as well as interesting to think about. Rather than having the freak show vibe that reality TV can carry, it feels like a sincere attempt to understand a particular intersection of gender and class that’s often ridiculed or stigmatized.
In that sense, I think it does achieve its goal of blending reality and fiction, in order to get at the truth.
Katherine Murray is a Toronto-based writer who yells about movies and TV on her blog.