Something feels lost in the bigscreen adaptation of Leena Lander’s widely translated (albeit not into English) 1991 novel, “The Home of Dark Butterflies.” Tale of troubled youth at an island-set reformatory is polished and intriguing, but whatever glue originally held the plot and characters together dissolves here, leaving the whole feeling variably underdeveloped, undermotivated or just unmoving. Book’s stature should stir some theatrical biz in select Euro territories, with wider broadcast sales to follow.
Considered a “hopeless case,” though he seems merely misunderstood, 13-year-old Juhani (Niilo Syvaoja, who looks closer to 18) has gone through many a foster home since he purportedly killed a baby sibling as a child. Now he’s given a last chance under the tough-love regime of Olavi Harjula (Tommi Korpela), who announces, “I am God and this is my kingdom” upon welcoming the newbie to “the Island.”
There, a half-dozen similarly problematic teen boys have already settled into the regime of manual labor and school. Money is already scarce, but when a government inspector announces the program is being defunded entirely, the obsessed Olavi refuses to give up — as do the boys. (One major logic gap here is that from what we see, these young men might indeed be better off elsewhere; helmer Dome Karukoski and adapter Marko Leino never convey what is special, or even particularly successful, about Olavi’s notions of juvenile rehab.) He seizes on an unlikely plan to grow silkworms for profit, something never been done before in this far-north climate.
As that pipe dream is put into precarious motion, other dramas percolate. Olavi’s unhappy wife (Kristiina Halttu) commences an affair with brawny student Salmi (Eero Milonoff). Juhani creates sparks of his own with Olavi’s daughter Vanamo (Marjut Maristo) when she’s not attending school on the mainland. Meanwhile, he gets a visit from his untrustworthy father (Pertti Sveholm) and has nightmarish flashbacks that finally illuminate the truth of his traumatized childhood.
With murder, suicide, and various other past and present crises piling up toward the end, “Butterflies” can’t avoid veering into melodramatic excess. There’s a nagging feeling that everything here made psychological sense and cleaved to a neat narrative arc as literature, but condensing Lander’s material and juggling its disparate tones overwhelmed the filmmakers. Result is always watchable, but seldom fully credible or emotionally satisfying. Thesps do their best under the circumstances.
There’s nothing to quibble about in the well-turned production package.