Priscilla Cameron’s The Butterfly Tree is the latest in a long line of Australian films to fall into the uneasy no-man’s-land between ‘art film’ and ‘adult drama’. I’m on board with the film’s artier intentions, if not their execution; Cameron centres her small town story on ex-burlesque dancer Evelyn (Melissa George) and the two men who fall for her: teenager Fin (Ed Oxenbould) and his father, Al (Ewen Leslie).
Throughout its first act, the film evokes the core of burlesque – its romanticisation of the past, its precarious balancing of silliness and sexuality, a woman’s reclaiming and repurposing of feminine sexuality – through overly-stylised setpieces. It’s fantastical and dream and often captivating, and captures the core of great burlesque.
If The Butterfly Tree were a short exploring this aesthetic, it’d succeed. But the film feels awkwardly obliged to offer up undercooked (melo)drama that clashes against its stylistic experimentation. There’s a teacher/student love affair, revelations of hidden illnesses and familial conflict: all utterly unconvincing, all played against the backdrop of a small town that never feels like more than a film set. As much as I admire elements of The Butterfly Tree, it falls short of its loftier intentions by settling into conventionality.