The Butterfly Tree (3 stars)

The Butterfly Tree

EIFF 2018: Visually ravishing but dramatically iffy Australian drama, starring Melissa George

Melissa George casts a spell over a father and son in a somewhat flyaway drama. In the visually ravishing debut of writer-director Priscilla Cameron, George plays the fortysomething equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an ex-burlesque dancer who sets up shop as a florist in the small town of Spring Creek and drives the men there to no little distraction.

Flights of fancy blend with life's bitterest cruelties in this magical realist tale from the flamboyant school of Australian filmmaking – think Baz Luhrmann or PJ Hogan, minus the grotesques. Even the houses are painted in vivacious colours that burst from the lush, semi-rural surroundings like tropical flowers. If occasional forays into CGI fantasy betray the low budget, the production design and cinematography are, for the most part, gorgeous.

Ed Oxenbould is Fin, a lonely teenager pining after his dead mother and unable to share his grief with his teacher father Al (Ewen Leslie), who finds fleeting comfort from his own anguish in a series of short-term liaisons, including with a hilariously indiscreet student (Sophie Lowe). Fin's blossoming sexuality and devastation over the loss of his beguiling mother converge in his heightened interest in George's Evelyn, a Freudian infatuation not exactly discouraged by the mysteriously distracted newcomer.

Leslie is a touch bland here but Al's fecklessness rings true, while Oxenbould fails to bring the required emotional complexity to his troubled teen – meaning his actions mainly read as creepy, rather than born of confusion and trauma. Neither is drawn with a great deal of depth.

Thankfully George is easily fascinating enough to credibly hold the pair of them in her thrall. Her trademark soulfulness gives weight to an initially enigmatic woman, and the film's preoccupation with her physical attributes at least makes sense once we have the full picture. Cameron's female perspective is welcome; the filmmaker takes a closer look at a character who, for some, would simply be an object of desire, as she exposes the cracks in Evelyn's glamorous facade.

Screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018. Selected release from Fri 13 Jul.

The Butterfly Tree

  • 3 stars
  • 2017
  • Australia
  • 1h 37min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Priscilla Cameron
  • Cast: Melissa George, Ewen Leslie, Ed Oxenbould, Sophie Lowe
  • UK release: 13 July 2018

Fin (Oxenbould), a lonely teenager pining after his dead mother and unable to bond with father Al (Leslie), becomes interested in Evelyn (George), an ex-burlesque dancer who opens a florists’ shop. Oxenbould doesn’t really flesh out Fin’s complexity but George is fascinating enough to give the film some soul.