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Non-Review Review: Float Like a Butterfly

Unlike its protagonist, Float Like a Butterfly never quite figures out what it wants to be.

Float Like a Butterfly finds itself trapped between two different genres. On one side, Float Like a Butterfly aims for gritty social realism, charting a Traveller family as they attempt to navigate the uncaring Ireland of the early seventies. This is a familiar and naturalistic coming of age story, focusing on young Frances as she tries to hold her family together while her recently released father Michael sinks deeper and deeper into a drunken stupor. Frances is caught between the conservative patriarchal ideals of her own community, and the predatory hatred of the outside community.

The haymaker.

On the other hand, Float Like a Butterfly tries to position itself as an empowering sports movie, the familiar template about a confused and alienated young person who finds meaning and purpose through the expression that sport offers. Inspired by none other than Mohammad Ali himself, Frances aspires to become “the greatest.” She takes up boxing, even inheriting a set of gloves at one point. This is a story about a woman who is pressed in by a conservative society, but who finds a necessary outlet through sport. It is a feel-good triumphant narrative.

To its credit, Float Like a Butterfly plays both sides of this narrative relatively well; it offers a compelling portrait of life on the margins when it aims for naturalism, and delivers the feeling of empowerment and elation when it evokes those upbeat sports films. The big problem with Float Like a Butterfly is that it never reconciles these two competing halves into a single cohesive film. It is too meandering and too grounded to really sell itself as a sports narrative, but too heightened and too structured in its familiar plot rhythms to work as a slice of life.

Winning ribbons.

There is a lot to enjoy in Float Like a Butterfly. Most obviously, there’s a charming sense of place and time to a lot of the film. Large segments of Float Like a Butterfly are loose and fluid, unfolding in an organic way. There is an extended middle stretch of the film that finds Michael taking his two children on a road trip, which serves as a vehicle for a series of episodic adventures and encounters that add a sense of texture to the family’s life. There’s a low-key honesty to Float Like a Butterfly, with writer and director Carmel Winters fascinated by her characters and their world.

Float Like a Butterfly takes its time unfolding, offering a slow-developing sketch of the family unit. Michael’s own history and his insecurities are gradually explored over the course of the film, as the community’s expectations of Frances are articulated. Some of this is heavy-handed and clumsy, its repeated emphasis on the patriarchal nature of the community occasionally veering into something resembling self-parody. Float Like a Butterfly clearly and effectively communicates the stakes for Frances quite early on, but keeps coming back to the same ideas.

She won’t be boxed in.

Occasionally, Float Like a Butterfly communicates these ideas elegantly and skillfully; such as a small moment when Michael catches a glimpse of blood on Frances’ inner thigh, and immediately instructs her to “wash up”, reminding her of how he sees her. Other moments are decidedly less subtle; confronted with Frances’ assertive personality, one member observes, “A husband’d knock the spark right out of her.” It’s blunt, but it communicates the point. However, Float Like a Butterfly seems unable to go even five minutes without a similarly blunt reminder.

The same could be argued of the film’s portrayal of the relationship between the Travelling community and the settled folk. The Travelling community has been the victim of systemic and historic prejudice, and it could be fairly argued that prejudice against the Travelling community is the last socially acceptable prejudice in Ireland. As such, it is commendable that Float Like a Butterfly is willing to confront that and acknowledge it. On the other hand, the settled characters encountered by the central characters all behave like cartoon villains.

Punching above its weight.

These beats feel especially clumsy given how effectively Float Like a Butterfly captures the humanity in smaller and more intimate moments, in short exchanges between characters or in knowing glances traded over silence. Float Like a Butterfly has a lot of emotional power when it shows some restraint in these areas, such as during a (barely) off-screen act of petty brutality by a settled farmer or in an awkward tumble between Michael and a widowed woman in the wagon that he shares with his own two children. There’s a compelling honesty and humanity in these moments.

The cast does a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard, with Winters trusting her ensemble to carry extended scenes without explicit dialogue. Dara Devaney is very good as Michael, a man seemingly broken by the combination of his wife’s death and his time in prison, who has been left incapable of providing the care and protection that his children need from him. Float Like a Butterfly never shies from the toxicity of Michael’s masculinity – built as it is on the twin obsessions of violence and alcohol – and the effect of it on the people around him.

Capping it all off.

However, Float Like a Butterfly hinges on the central performance from Hazel Doupe as Frances. Float Like a Butterfly is often focused on Frances, not merely watching scenes from Frances’ perspective, but watching Frances react to the scenes as they unfold. There’s an impressive strength and confidence in Doupe’s performance, the young actor proving capable of anchoring such a film with a relatively sparse part. Frances is not the most verbose of characters, but it is always clear what she is thinking or how she is feeling. That is some good work from a child actor.

That said, this naturalistic slice of slice exploration of a family wandering across seventies Ireland is awkwardly juxtaposed with a more conventional and more formulaic story about a young woman who finds her identity and purpose through sport. Early in Float Like a Butterfly, the film borrows its central philosophy from Mohammad Ali, understanding the power of sport to elevate an oppressed minority. On adopting the nickname “the greatest”, Frances asserts, “I said that before I knew it was true.”

Wagon the tail of the dog.

There’s an endearing logic to this, even if it occasionally feels a bit broad. When he is chastised for cheering on Ali’s efforts to show “the white man” what’s what, Frances’ grandfather is politely told that he is in fact white. In a piece of dialogue adapted crudely from Roddy Doyle, the grandfather responds, “The Travellers are the blacks of Ireland.” It’s a very crude piece of racial politics, that doesn’t necessarily track in any literal sense, but its heart is in the right place.

So, naturally, Frances is drawn to boxing as a way of defending herself from threats both inside and outside the community. (Quite literally, Frances uses physical force to defend herself repeatedly, but most forcefully with a member of her own family and with a predatory settled farmer.) When Michael asks what Frances will do when her husband hits her, Frances smartly responds, “I’ll hit him back.” There is a sense that boxing is more than just a metaphorical escape from grim reality, but a necessary defense mechanism in a dangerous world.

A shore thing.

At the same time, the aspirational and fantastical elements of the triumphant sports narrative never completely integrate into the looser structure of the naturalist character sketch. This is most obvious at the climax of the film, when Float Like a Butterfly has to pivot dramatically from one genre to another. It needs a climactic boxing match, even if its portrayal of Frances’ life is so grounded that it cannot easily employ one. As a result, the film’s final act hinges on an incredibly forced set-up that finds Frances boxing as a representative of the entire community.

This is a stock beat from any sports film about an underdog from another world who is elevated through sport; there is even an aspect of it in Fighting With My Family. However, it feels forced and awkward in the context of a nominally more realistic piece of cinema. Winters even leans into the tropes of the genre; there is a moment during the climactic boxing match where Frances is knocked down, only to be energised as sound clips from earlier in the film play over an intense close-up of her face. This is very much at odds with the low-key intimacy of earlier scenes.

Float Like a Butterfly never finds the balance that a fighter so sorely need.

 

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