Striking an awkward balance between angsty crime thriller and after-school special, bittersweet coming-of-age film Black Butterfly is now available on DVD from Entertainment One. The low-budget adolescent drama follows teenager Ariel Simms (nicknamed “Butterfly” by her parents) after her dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer are derailed by a sudden and violent sexual assault.
Ariel (Mahogany Monae) is an average teenager with a wonderful boyfriend, a loving family, and a promising academic future, thanks in part to her accomplished performance on the high school swim team. Things change following Ariel’s sixteenth birthday, when one of her father’s co-workers shows up unexpectedly at their house after school and brutally rapes her. Afraid her father will retaliate with violence and land himself in prison, Ariel becomes consumed by a buried emotional struggle to keep the rape a secret and move on with her life. As the cracks in her façade begin to show, however, events increasingly spiral out of control, threatening to destroy Ariel, and everything she and her family have struggled and sacrificed for.
Black Butterfly’s heart seems to be in the right place, and the contributions of its performers, though uniformly unpolished, are impassioned and sincere. Two things really hurt the film, and the first one, unfortunately, is its technical drawbacks. To some degree, issues with sound and picture quality can be written off as inevitable consequences of a constrained budget, but knowing how to apportion limited production funds can be as important as drumming up financial support for a feature in the first place, and skimping on details like sound quality and scoring can make even an otherwise accomplished production feel amateurish and under-produced. Dialogue in the film is frequently muddled and often inaudible, and the soundtrack feels like it was chosen at random via computer algorithm from a pre-composed, digitized music library. The picture quality, likewise, is grainy and bleached-out, but that’s nowhere near as distracting as the sound issues – in fact, if the whole project had been handled more cohesively, a gritty documentary feel could have easily worked in its favor.
The other major problem with Black Butterfly is tonal inconsistency. The film’s basic premise is strong, and aspects of its approach feel genuinely raw and poignant, but the movie’s inability to decide whether it wants to be a hard-nosed character study, an achy teen melodrama, or a gritty police thriller cause it to repeatedly sabotage itself with jarring, uncomfortable emotional shifts, ultimately climaxing in a bizarrely operatic, incongruous, and silly ending.
E-One’s disc is pretty dry, aside from a token reel of interviews with the cast and crew (admittedly, this reel does contain footage of actress Sheree Bynum wearing totally amazing and thematically appropriate earrings, so it’s not a complete bust). For a film with a budget of less than $500,000, Black Butterfly could have been a lot worse, but its many avoidable pratfalls unfortunately sink what could have otherwise been a relatively solid low-budget feature.