Three estranged adult siblings reunite for a road trip after being mysteriously summoned to their home village by their long-absent father, confronting their shared, troubled past along the way — on the face of it, Turkish writer-director Tolga Karaçelik’s heartsore, ruefully funny third feature “Butterflies” sounds like the very template of a laughter-through-the-tears Sundance crowdpleaser. But there’s a stranger, slyer current to this playful exercise in tone-switching that keeps the journey surprising even as its overall destination becomes clear. Not every one of the film’s absurdist comic lunges lands, and at just shy of two hours, this particular shaggy dog wouldn’t be hurt by a slight trim. But when Karaçelik keeps the focus squarely on the honest, complicated emotions of his superbly played core trio of characters — and less on the quirkier goings-on fizzing around them — “Butterflies” morphs into something rather lovely.
A Grand Jury Prize win at Sundance should boost the distribution prospects of a film destined for a long and popular festival run following its bows in Park City and Rotterdam. A very different kettle of kalkan from the intense genre mechanics of Karaçelik’s previous, well-traveled feature “Ivy,” his latest should comfortably build on that film’s distinguished profile. Though “Butterflies” gains interest from its specific, raki-doused cultural trappings — particularly those relating to the Muslim faith and community — its essential drama of a family broken and tenuously mended is a wholly universal one. (It’s not at all difficult to imagine the dynamics and geography of a hypothetical U.S. remake.)
The film opens on something of an outlandish red herring, as fortysomething Cemal (Tolga Tekin), a Turkish astronaut long settled in Germany, addresses Angela Merkel in a live news report on the negligence of the German space program, before underlining his protest by setting fire to his spacesuit in the studio. The tone is thus set for a harsher, more manic comedy, which continues as we’re introduced to Cemal’s two younger siblings: Kenan (Bartu Küçükçağlayan), a down-on-his-luck actor reduced to doing banal voiceover work, and Suzan (Tuğçe Altuğ), a teacher in the crumbling stages of her marriage to a grotesquely self-absorbed businessman. Karaçelik paints their individual person crises in broad strokes; once the three are brought together, however, their characters grow more textured and credible.
Cemal, trying to play the part of sensible older brother while harboring his own reserves of guilt and irresponsibility, receives an unexpected phone call from his father, instructing him to gather Kenan and Suzan and bring them to the dusty, remote hamlet where they grew up. For reasons that become gradually and tragically apparent, none of them has seen Dad in 30 years; it’s less straightforwardly clear why the relationship between the three siblings has grown rusty and strained, but evidently these family wounds run deep. Kenan is initially reluctant to join his brother and sister on the road; Karaçelik’s script beautifully tracks the brittle tension and incremental thawing between them — abetted by a combination of vintage Turkish pop music and rowdy-making local liquor — in their first days together.
Yet as soon as a comfortable road-movie rhythm is set, the three arrive home far sooner than we expect, in a landscape that cinematographer Andaç Sahan practically parches in shades of wheat and rusk, ahead of an elusive symbolic promise of rain. With this turn, “Butterflies” enters yet another register, as the ongoing raw realism of the family’s private interactions are played against the more heightened, even farcical goings-on in the now far-from-familiar village of their childhood, where street chickens literally explode at random and the nearest thing to a voice of reason is a neurotic imam shaken by a crisis of faith. A poetic strain of folk mythology enters the busy mix too, involving the village’s reputation as a resting place for dying butterflies.
If these contrasting modes of storytelling aren’t entirely complementary, they do heighten the emotional authenticity of the siblings’ more immediate, more intimate struggles, as they return to roiling wells of familial trauma, or identify ones they never quite knew before. “It’s been hurting ever since I was born, so I never noticed,” observes Suzan, the baby of the family; “Butterflies” is most perceptive and gut-punching on the ways in which we hold on to childhood memories to the point that we no longer know if we imagined them or not. All three leads pitch their performances perfectly, outlining strong, disparate personalities that are nonetheless plainly shaped by the same cause of pain and self-reliance. It’s in the moments when they involuntarily let go of their difference — whether collectively losing their cool over a private joke, or drunkenly, lumpenly dancing together to a dusted-off favorite song — that “Butterflies” most movingly takes wing.