Butterfly Kisses, directed by Rafael Kapelinski and starring Theo Stevenson as Jake, is a haunting and thought provoking coming of age story with a twist, that Prostasia Foundation will be screening in Oakland on August 18.
Although there is no getting around the darkness of the film’s subject matter, it also manages to be unexpectedly funny, beautiful, and surreal. Nothing that is depicted on screen is particularly shocking or offensive, but by inviting us to peer into the lives of characters whom we would normally avoid even thinking about, Butterfly Kisses certainly shakes us out of our comfort zone.
The path that Kapelinski and screenwriter Greer Ellison take us on to get to this place of reflection is winding, interesting, and not what you would expect. In a world where shades of grey are often overlooked, this movie is unafraid to tread between the dark and the light. In particular the film manages to avoid dealing in stereotypes by drawing fully formed characters, rather than simplistic boogiemen. The tragic arc of the narrative is a plenty incendiary enough on its own, and requires none of the typical Hollywood stylization of bad vs good.
As the film is not a Hollywood production, it does not suffer the classic structure of a story that builds towards a happy, tidy, ending. The story is left to be what it is, and does not seek to leave you feeling anything but your own feelings. Having said that, some may feel that the movie gets off to a slow start. The beginning of the film, while visually beautiful and stimulating, does little to move the plot along at first. It is, instead, more of pensive look at the characters involved and the world in which they exist. But even if you find the beginning slow, the overall story is a worthwhile one.
OK, so, some films are simply hard to review without spoilers. I am the most anti-spoiler person you know so I’m telling you now, there are spoilers coming. If you are as allergic to spoilers as I am, please stop reading now.
Taking place in and around a London housing estate, the story follows three young, cis-male, straight presenting, friends in a sort of a day-in-the-life way. We watch them hang out, workout, drink, watch porn, chase girls, and so on. Drugs and alcohol are prevalent, along with some mildly surreal party scenes. But ultimately, the story follows the interest of one of these boys, Jake, in a very young girl who has moved onto the estate.
Jake’s friends tease him throughout the movie and attempt to set him up with a woman for his first sexual experience, but Jake seems far more at ease as when he is babysitting young Lilly (Honor Kneafsey). It was unclear to me if babysitting was originally simply a means to earn money for him or if it is, in fact, a means to spend time with girls on the youngest side of his spectrum of sexual interest. But it doesn’t seem that his eventual dark turn was premeditated or inevitable. Lilly does not appear to be an object of sexual obsession for Jake, but rather, a different little girl who lives in the same apartment complex and visits his charge to play.
Despite involving the victimization via sexual abuse of a young child, the story is not cut and dried. The predator in this case is a teenager himself and he struggles with his sexuality. If there is one take away for me, the film really highlights the fact that stigma pushes people into the shadows where they can’t get help. I can’t help but think the story would have been different for both characters if there had been resources and knowledge readily available. For Jake, the turning point in his tragic tale comes only when he is at his lowest ebb, socially and emotionally—which is a realistic scenario based on what we know about how child sexual abuse happens in real life.
In the epilog, the narrator struggles with his ultimate feelings regarding his former friend. And I think that’s the crux and something we need to decide as a society. When someone commits a sexual offense against a child, media reports often juxtapose impressions from friends and family that the offender appeared to be a normal, healthy person with the revelation that he was in fact a “monster” in disguise all along. But Butterfly Kisses doesn’t encourage us to view Jake’s downfall in those terms.
Instead, among the questions that I found myself asking after watching Butterfly Kisses was, will the young girl who suffered at his hands be traumatized by what happened, or by its aftermath? Will Jake be offered a path towards rehabilitation and redemption? Most of all, I wondered—how could Jake’s story have taken a different path?
These are among the difficult questions that Prostasia Foundation and our partners grapple with daily. Although Butterfly Kisses does not provide easy answers to any of them, we can thank the filmmakers for giving us the opportunity to engage with these uncomfortable questions in a frank and thoughtful way, and perhaps seeing the world in a few more shades of grey than before.
Butterfly Kisses has its San Francisco Bay Area premiere on August 18 at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland, in conjunction with our celebration of the first anniversary of Prostasia Foundation’s launch last August. If you can make it to the screening, I look forward to meeting up with you after the film to hear what you thought of it.