Irish fight flick Float Like a Butterfly struggles to soar
From the producers of Once and Sing Street, Float Like a Butterfly is a tale of a plucky Irish Traveller teen battling for a better boxing-based lot in life. David Roy discovers whether it can go the distance
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY (Not rated, 121mins) Drama
Starring: Hazel Doupe, Dara Devaney, Johnny Collins, Lalor Roddy, Aidan O'Hare, Hilda Fay, Packy Lee, Aaron Monaghan.
Director: Carmel Winters
FLOAT Like A Butterfly's period-set mix of heartwrenching family drama, road movie adventure, coming-of-age melodrama and fight flick pugilistics might favour sentimentality over subtlety while being overly seasoned with cliches and heavy-handed scoring, yet writer/director Carmel Winters's film manages to punch above its weight thanks to an affecting performance from lead actor Hazel Doupe.
The Dublin newcomer's pitch-perfect turn and striking screen presence helps ensure we're fully invested in the fortunes of Frances, an early 1970s Traveller teen whose love of boxing has helped her weather a knock-out blow of devastating family loss during childhood.
This flame-haired, Muhammed Ali-obsessed tough nut will now happily square up to anyone who crosses her or her family, particularly her sensitive, animal-loving little brother, Patrick (Johnny Collins). This usually manifests in bouts of bare-knuckle battery at the local beach involving a group of 'townie' bullies.
However, when Frances's estranged father Michael (Dara Devaney, apparently channelling Daniel Day-Lewis) re-enters her life, it quickly becomes clear that the boxing interests he once enthusiastically encouraged in her as a child do not fit his view of what a woman should be – leaving the emotionally damaged teen unable to gain the parental approval she craves even as she, dad and Patrick embark on a road trip to Dublin to see Muhammed Ali fight Alvin Lewis at Croke Park (or so Frances thinks).
There's a fair bit of Traveller stereotyping going on in Float Like a Butterfly: everyone lives in mud-smeared squalor, with pretty much all the male characters being little more than cartoon drunkards interested in f***ing, fighting and a good sing-song, while the women are either stoic matrons with babes in arms or long-sufferingly world weary and wise, enduring their lot in life out of a sense of tradition even as they offer commentary condemning it.
Frances and her kin are pitted against equally two-dimensional authority figures, represented by a callous copper known only as 'Sergeant' (a gleefully malignant turn by Aidan O'Hare) and his uniformed cronies.
Such 'traditional' characterisation is perhaps meant to reinforce Frances as a mould-breaker, and the film is certainly driven by the teenager's inner battle to pluck up the courage to choose a different path in life, even if it means going against the wishes of her boozy, brutish but still beloved dad.
Again, the film benefits enormously from Doupe's ability to convey such inner turmoil via subtle facial expressions and character tics. It's just a shame the film-makers have also felt the need to ladel on such an emotionally manipulative trad-based score, which often becomes intrusive.
The script also drops a couple of clangers, including a key line of dialogue which sails perilously close to being a straight lift of one of the most famous quotes from the Rocky franchise.
Given the film's boxing theme, charitable types might call this an 'homage': it's harder to excuse one character's earnest description of Travellers being "the blacks of Ireland" as anything other than an ill-considered steal from The Commitments – and at least Jimmy Rabbitte was supposed to be an eejit.
From the producers of international Irish smashes Once and Sing Street, Float Like A Butterfly is no match for either of those films. It's a shame, because there's enough talent on the screen and behind the scenes (Winters's debut feature Snap was a more subversive and critically acclaimed affair) to suggest that it could have been a contender rather than a mere undercard curio.
Showing from May 17 at QFT Belfast, book online via Queensfilmtheatre.com