A teenager hits back against conformity, tradition, and her narrow-minded father in Float Like a Butterfly, an excellent coming-of-age film from Carmel Winters, featuring a star-making lead performance from north Dublin up-and-comer Hazel Doupe.
We open on the Joyce family of Travellers, making merry around a campfire. There’s cheering and laughter as father Michael (Dara Devaney) shadow-boxes and practices combinations with his daughter Frances (played in these sequences by Amelie Metcalfe).
A beaming Frances, perched on her father’s shoulders, parrots Muhammad Ali, declaring: “I’m the greatest! Aren’t I the great Mammy?” Her mother, Margaret (Lisa Lambe) agrees. Michael and Margaret go on to perform a singalong, to the delight of children and grandparents.
It’s a scene of familial bliss cut short by a group of gardaí keen to move the Joyces along. “They’re cruelty men who take children away,” warns Big Mammy Joyce from inside the caravan.
The playful violence from moments ago becomes real as Michael brawls with the gardaí after they manhandle Frances. He breaks a younger guard’s leg and is dragged off to prison. Amidst the skirmish, Frances’ mother is fatally injured.
This sequence is followed by an impressive cut from a side-on shot of the young Frances, running, into a side-on shot of a teenage Frances as she tackles a local bully into the surf.
For Frances, an intensity of feeling is carried through to her adolescence, sadness over the loss of her mother is transformed to anger at the world around her. The matching of action to action, running from tragedy to running head first into peril, tells us so much more than any amount expository dialogue ever could.
Doupe is sensational as the teenage Frances. She is free-spirited and fiery. Her temper is only matched by the tenderness she shows for her family and community.
Winters dispenses with the usual sports-movie formula. Doupe’s Frances has never stopped training. We see her diligently practicing combination punches on a makeshift dummy. Her form is good, the punches have weight and heft.
What we see in Frances’ physicality and form is the result of a single-minded determination to fight back against what is expected of her, and in a broader sense, to strike out at the world that shuns her people.
Winters provides us a rich view of the community and spirit of Traveller life. She cast actors and amateurs in a convincing ensemble that feels respectful and authentic. The use of Cant throughout gives the dialogue an energy all of its own.
Michael Lavelle’s cinematography bathes the seaside campsite in a rich golden sunlight from dawn until dusk. The warmness of the images suggests that we are seeing an ideal community.
However, Frances and her friends are hassled by many of the local children and the Gardaí pay close and unwarranted attention to the community, looking for trouble where there’s none to be found.
In one scene, the community gather around a tiny black-and-white television and watch as Muhammad Ali talks about defying his oppressors. “Go on Ali, you show the white devils!” exclaims a member of the crowd.
Frances’ sense of injustice and her circumstances have made her tough, and she has had to grow up fast. She is a parental figure and role model to her younger brother Patrick, and they function well as a family unit.
So when her hero father Michael returns from a long stretch in prison, a drunken shadow of himself, Frances finds it hard to settle into the role of a doting daughter. Tensions run high between Frances and Michael.
Upon Michael’s insistence, Patrick and Frances are taken out of school to head off to a horse fair. Big Mammy protests, but Frances argues that all they do in school is “sit at the back of class and make us colour pictures of their houses”.
For Frances, heading out on the road seems the right thing to do. She hopes they’ll end up in Dublin to see Ali fight Al Lewis in Croke Park. There’s also the chance to show Michael her worth as a fighter and individual.
Michael has other ideas. He hopes to find a match for Frances on the road and put an end to her boxing dreams.
On the road, we see that Michael is a man out of step with a changed world. The loss of his wife and his time in jail have robbed him of his puckish bravado, and although he puts up a front, he is now a broken man.
Devaney does a good job of couching Michael’s cockiness in a desperate uneasiness. He acts as though he has mastery over the world, but time and time again, we see the frustration of a has-been or maybe, more accurately, a never-was.
In one sequence, Michael loses his cool at Patrick after a hijacked car stalls out on them. A tense argument culminates with Michael forcing Patrick to hit Frances in the face. Later, a drunk Michael becomes violent with Frances. After a humiliating and traumatic confrontation, Frances hits the road to Dublin to see Ali fight Lewis.
Her father, once her greatest ally and champion, is now the focal point of adolescent rebellion.
But the road to Dublin brings Frances back home again. There’s a fantastic sequence near the end of the film that sees Doupe running along the coastline. She falls to her knees and calls out her mother’s name at the edge of a cliff.
There are shades of Rocky but Stallone’s scaling of the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art represented a personal triumph rather than a searching for a reason to go on.
Winters’ framing has Frances appear insignificant against the cliff face, only to focus in on Hazel Doupe’s face, reminding us that Frances’s nature, her spirit and determination are defiant to the end.
Frances returns to the campsite to face-off against the local bully, a Garda sergeant’s son, in a bloody and significant brawl. Family and community honour, Michael’s dignity and Frances’ destiny are on the line.
She is finally allowed to wear the beat-up pair of gloves, she is finally able to step into the ring as protector and vanguard of her community.
Stephen Warbeck’s score is of a high standard throughout, but the score for this showdown is the real standout track. It gives the scene a bouncy intensity, fun but serious. Hummable tension.
The fight is perfectly pitched. Doupe dances and bobs around the place aping her hero Ali, the sergeant’s son fights a dirty fight. The direction and sound mixing are such that you feel every blow.
It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. The bout feels monumental because of what it represents to Frances and her folk. Winters makes good on Frances’ boxing potential, pulling no punches for a mesmerising finale.
Carmel Winters’ previous feature Snap came out nearly 10 years ago. The fact that Float Like a Butterfly took so long to produce speaks to the challenges facing a film such as this, both artistically and financially.
But this is a spirited, important, knockout of a picture that feels well worth the wait. Hazel Doupe too, is simply fantastic, she’s destined for great things. I’m hopeful that Winters’ next project comes as soon as it possibly can.