Float Like a Butterfly (15A)
Imagine, if you will, Rocky Balboa on a beach. As a young woman. And Irish. And a gypsy. Difficult, I know. But it’s what we get here.
The feisty spirit of the travellers is endearingly captured in this heartfelt tale of a teenage girl who proves better able to take care of herself than the menfolk in her life when it comes to fisticuffs.
Modelling herself on her hero Muhammad (‘The Greatest’) Ali – his trademark phrase gives the film its title – Frances (Hazel Doupe) is a 1960s Katie Taylor. She stubs cigarette butts into bales of hay and punches them to ashes.
Her mother dies in an early altercation with the gardaí. Her father Michael (Dara Devaney) is a harmless enough individual until drink takes hold of him. He then jettisons whatever tenuous stability he might otherwise possess. It turns him into a fighting machine.
Tomboy Frances – a Jodie Foster lookalike – has a maturity that belies her tender years. She watches her father intently after he’s released from prison. He upsets the stability of her world, insisting on moving her away from the site she’s inhabited while he’s been ‘inside’. He tries to pigeonhole her into his abjectly pre-feminist mould.
Frances doesn’t say much but her eyes register everything around her. She’s made of strong stuff but she has a big heart. Her kid brother Patrick is much more timid than she is. Michael tries to toughen him up. Frances doesn’t.
Writer-director Carmel Winters dwells lingeringly on her face. It becomes like a kind of counterpoint to the action. The storyline is thin but it gives Winters the luxury of panning her camera over a world she clearly loves.
There’s Celtic music, camaraderie, sterling family values. Winters tracks the stunning scenery that’s an endemic part of this primitive milieu.
There’s also lots of mischievous banter. Much of it is provided by Frances’ benign grandfather. His homespun witticisms act like another counterpoint.
The film is almost like a documentary. We’re 100% in this community. At one point we even get a subtitle for the dialogue. It’s that authentic.
Winters captures the pulse of the travelling world to a T. A character in one scene, instead of telling us her husband has died, says: “He’s gone off to heaven for himself.”
Float like a Butterfly takes us back to a simpler era. A nomadic section of society tries to go about its business in peace but faces almost daily conflict from the aforementioned gardai and a bigoted settled community. And even itself.
Winters doesn’t idealise the travellers; neither does she sanitise them. She gives us a pastoral portrayal of a world that already seems to have passed us by even though the film is set only a few decades ago.
“The travellers are the blacks of Ireland,” we’re told in one scene, a phrase reminiscent of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. Maybe that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed.