TIFF Review: 'Float Like a Butterfly'

Float Like a Butterfly
(Ireland, 101 min.)
Written and directed by Carmel Winters
Starring: Hazel Doupe, Dara Devaney, Johnny Collins, Hilda Foy
Programme: Discovery (World Premiere)
Courtesy TIFF
TIFF throws a crowd-pleasing punch in its line-up of girl power. Audiences willing to overlook the many boxing movie clichés in Float Like a Butterfly may find an empowering tale of a young girl’s fight for freedom. Whatever its shortcomings, Float Like a Butterfly has a lot to admire in the representational aspects, which inevitably tipped the crowd in its favour.

From the producers of Once and Sing Street comes this sophomore feature from director Carmel Winters (an award winning playwright before turning to film) with a breakout lead performance from young actor Hazel Doupe as Frances, a strong-willed Irish Traveller who dreams of being the Muhammed Ali of the Emerald Isle. Frances learns to throw mean punches from an early age as her wayfaring family faces ongoing discrimination from the Irish majority. Her spunky spirit is bound to win over some viewers as she defies tradition and social norms to assert her place in the world.

The Champ himself would be proud to raise Frances’s fist. She fights in the memory of her late mother, who died when she was just a child. A violent encounter with the police rips the family apart at the beginning of the film and when Butterfly flashes forward to Frances’s teenage years, the fight inside her is only stronger as she trains with a stronger sense that her family hails from a community of marginalized people. Only recently recognized as an ethnic minority in Ireland, the Irish Travellers are a largely nomadic group in the 1960s period that Float Like a Butterfly dramatizes and the film shows their ongoing rootlessness as the state and Irish majority treat them as second-class citizens, if not lower than rats.

The film depicts the Travellers with good spirits as Winters creates itinerant communities that disperse and gather together to perform for the crowds. The sense of kinship and community, however, is disrupted when Frances’s father, Michael (Dara Devaney), returns from prison and insists on taking his children away from the family they’ve formed with their grandparents. Frances’s doesn’t go without a fight, especially since the travels could lead her to Dublin where Muhammed Ali is expected to visit for a momentous fight.

Winters crafts an affectionate family drama that resonates with relevant themes of belonging, identity, and gender as Frances finds herself continually at odds with her father’s sexist attitudes. Being part of a marginalized community does little to open Michael’s eyes to similar struggles and social inequities. It’s only once he challenges Frances to give him her best shot does he realize how upside down his world can be.

Float Like a Butterfly has an authentic and affectionate eye for Ireland’s poor and working class citizens. The film is a tale of the rich histories that endure on Ireland’s rolling hillsides. It’s also about our failures to learn from history as too many of the themes echo the struggles faces by girls like Frances today. Told without the euphoria of Once or the giddy charm of Sing Street, Float Like a Butterfly is stark social realism, but it’s buoyed by the same musicality that makes the other Irish ditties so strong. A through line for the film is the power of music as traditional tunes sung by the Irish Travellers evoke the resilience of a people who will not be moved. The folk songs are like Frances’s ringwalk anthems as the spirit of her people echoes in each punch she throws.

Float Like a Butterfly screens:
-Sat, Sept. 8 at TIFF Lightbox at 2:15 PM
-Mon, Sept. 10 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 7:00 PM
-Fri, Sept. 14 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 3:15 PM