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Entries in Butterfly Circus/The [2009] (1)

Monday
Oct172011

The Butterfly Circus (2009)

Fortune, Faith, Flight

As you may know from my constantly talking about the event, Doug Jones was in Chicago a couple weeks back to premiere his new horror movie, Absentia. Before the screening, host Dave Canfield showed three short films starring the actor, and in a genius stroke of programming, The Butterfly Circus was selected as the capper.

In my review of the middle film, Sudden Death!, I mentioned how hard it is to not run away when someone suggests watching a short film. Double that difficulty if the phrase "faith-based" enters the conversation. I wasn't alone in sniffling dismissively at the sound of this "inspirational" movie about Depression-era circus freaks (Shove it, atheists; we agnostics have the worst of both worlds). But by the time the credits rolled, me and the handful of people standing at the back of the room were wiping the corners of our eyes.

Director Joshua Weigel and his wife/co-writer, Rebekah, tell the story of Will (Nick Vujicic), a limbless man who travels the country as the main attraction in a low-rent freak show. While running errands one afternoon, three members of a traveling circus drop in to see what the competition has to offer. The ringleader, Mr. Mendez (Eduardo Verástegui), sees something special in Will, even though years of abuse and mockery have turned him into a spiteful version of the inhuman thing everyone else sees.

Sensing better working conditions and respect on the part of the owners, Will ditches his troupe and hitches a ride with Mendez's Butterfly Circus. He assures his new boss that he'd make as lucrative an attraction as the contortionist or the strong man, but Mendez shuts him down with little explanation. Will is reduced to menial tasks such as passing out show fliers with other performers and watching the circus' feature acts from the sidelines. He comes to realize that the reason everyone else gets stage time is because they see themselves as gifted, rather than abnormal.

This brings us to the baptism scene. I don't want to go further into the story because, frankly, I've brought you right up to the climax. Suffice it to say the Weigels have found a brilliant way of incorporating their belief's traditions into a beautiful metaphor for Will's transformation (no, I'm not talking about butterflies and cocoons; that part comes later). This critical scene involving water and a family of believers is unlike any presentation of the ritual I've seen. It is--here's that word again--agnostic in its meaning: Christians will recognize it right away; people who just want to watch an uplifting movie about overcoming adversity won't feel assaulted by scripture.

In fact, what I love most about this scene is how it leaves the audience open to interpret what it is that helps Will along on his journey. Is it God's grace? Or is it a resilience that he'd never been forced to acknowledge? Is it both? Is it something else entirely? These are big questions in a little movie, and you can either take these philosophical musings with you or leave them in the theatre seat when the lights come up.

Even if you don't care about any of that, The Butterfly Circus is a must-see. Like Sudden Death!, it may just challenge your notion of what can be accomplished in a short-form movie*--and on a meager budget. The Weigels have created an utterly convincing period piece that looks like a pet project from a major studio. The top-notch sets, costumes, effects, and performances evoke HBO's short-lived series, Carnivale. Sure, the filmmakers play up the sentimentality, especially towards the end, but they tiptoe around schmaltz, staying firmly in the realm of earned weepiness.

Note: If you're curious, you can watch the film in its entirety here.

*During the evening's Q&A, Jones said that The Butterfly Circus has received both interest and additional funding, and is in the process of being developed into a feature-length film. While I'm happy for the Weigels and everyone else involved, I think this story is most effective in a to-the-point, twenty-minute chunk. Expansion can mean dillution, but I'm open to being surprised (again).