There are manic pixie dream girls, there are hypermanic pixie dream girls, and then there is Evelyn Grey, the roller-skating, flower-selling, burlesque-dancing object of male fixation in “The Butterfly Tree.” Played with good grace and an impressively straight face by Melissa George, she’s the swirling spirit animal for this spangly, eccentric Australian tale of growing up and grief management, with a glittery side interest in lepidopterology. As brazen as it is uneven, Priscilla Cameron’s debut feature embraces high kitsch as a form of earnest therapeutic release — an approach to which viewers will find themselves either dreamily susceptible or violently allergic. In the film’s era-fudging, magical-realist world, all menfolk fall into the former column when it comes to Evelyn herself; the shared crush of a small-town college teacher and his adolescent son drives Cameron’s unabashed melodrama to quasi-Oedipal extremes it can’t quite control.
From its world premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival, “The Butterfly Tree” will flit to a slot in Toronto’s Discovery program — an apt placement for a work that, for better or worse, sometimes feels beamed in from another dimension entirely. From the opening credits, which find George performing a rhythmic striptease in monarch butterfly robes to the woozy strains of Belgian trip-hoppers Hooverphonic, Cameron trades in scenes, sounds and images that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else: By the halfway mark, a berserk digression into the supposed magnetism between scarab beetles and male nipples seems positively par for the course. Whether such novelty can pique the curiosity of international distributors remains to be seen; either way, the film’s fragrant whiff of camp could gradually earn it a following in ancillary.
Not that “The Butterfly Tree” has been made in a spirit of lurid provocation: The heart-in-hand sincerity of its worldview is what makes the film endearing and aggravating by turns. Cameron, who has ambitiously cited the likes of “Amelie” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” as influences on her debut’s dizzily heightened mise en scène, largely co-opts the naive, wonderstruck perspective of 13-year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould), a sensitive, seemingly friendless soul who, following his mother’s recent death, is hungry for whatever semblance of beauty and magic he can find in Down Under suburbia.
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Notwithstanding his butterfly collecting hobby — which allows for plentiful, near-fluorescent daydream sequences of the gaudily digitized insects in enchanting flight — most of that magic comes in the practically glowing form of Evelyn, a kindly, kooky florist and former exotic dancer newly arrived in town on a cloud of lilac perfume and wafty backstory. (The random, unresolved appearance of an abusive ex-husband in one scene fills only a couple of blanks.) In the same afternoon, she separately befriends both Fin and his disconsolate dad Al (Ewen Leslie), who has lately been channeling his widower’s grief into an illicit affair with one of his creative writing students (Sophie Lowe, projecting some foxy slyness into a barely-there character). That neither father nor son knows of the other’s acquaintance with Evelyn is a slightly wobbly contrivance; once the secret’s out, the film and characters alike lose their brightly colored marbles, with familial and romantic tensions blooming and blurring in the film’s emotional hothouse.
No one’s doing things by halves in this wilfully humidified affair: Cameron commits to her ripe aesthetic with gusto, while her skilled actors lean fully and without irony into the lathery soap-opera dramatics. That doesn’t make “The Butterfly Tree” a particularly unified or cohesive exercise at script level. In particular, the ambiguous, tenderly played relationship between Evelyn and Fin, wherein puppy-love desire and maternal yearning cross over to tricky effect, isn’t best served by the film’s simultaneous fascination with George as a fantastical goddess of quirk — accessorized equally with sparkles and Kleenex. (Her 1950s hipster-girlie look of ornately rolled updos, floral tea dresses and rollerskates doesn’t seem too anachronistic in a cellphone-free milieu that is deliberately hard to place.) The gradual, solemn exposure of Fin’s dark family history, meanwhile, is awkwardly nested in the zanier present-tense storytelling.
Then again, such over-styling accounts for much of the wonky pleasure on offer here: If the film does end up finding the cult it seeks, the synthetic, iridescent work by costume designer Chrissy Flannery and production designer Charlie Shelley, captured by cinematographer Jason Hargreaves with a mixture of gauzy romanticism and garish distortion, will have a lot to do with it. David LaChapelle-meets-Baz Luhrmann images of Evelyn in a sequined, feather-lined bathrobe, tending to the fragile out-of-season flowers — poignant metaphor alert — in her spectacular glass greenhouse are the vivid, sticky takeaways from “The Butterfly Tree”; not all its deeper ideas, however, emerge from the chrysalis.