(2021) Drama (Warner Media/150) Tenoch Huerta, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, Juan Ugarte, Electra Avellán, Angelina Peláez, Emily Keefe, Jay Potter, Jarod Lindsey, Wendy Heagy, Daniel Fuentes Lobo, Gadi Rubin, Rich Miglio, Gisell Rodriguez, Maia Vogel, Fernanda Rivera, Maria Luiza Ceglia. Directed by Alexis Gambis
Butterflies are creatures of intense beauty and fragility. Their colorful wings delight us, and their migratory patterns can astound us. Butterflies have always been used as a metaphor, a desire that we harbor to emerge from our chrysalis – whatever it may be – as a beautiful, bejeweled butterfly and (hopefully) not as a dull, drab moth.
The parents of Mendel (Huerta) must have had great expectations for their son, naming him for a Czech scientist, but they didn’t live to see it happen, dying senselessly during a flood. This left Mendel and his older brother Simon (Hernández) orphaned, to be raised by their grandmother (Peláez) and a assortment of uncles. Mendel eventually left the tiny village nestled in the mountains of Michoacán where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter to study the butterflies as a biologist for a lab in New York. Simon stayed to work in the mines and raise a family; Simon hasn’t forgiven Mendel for leaving Mexico and leaving Simon alone to cope with the grief.
But Mendel returns for the funeral of his grandmother to find that while most of his family is overjoyed to see him, particularly his niece Lucia (Avellan) who wants very much for her uncle to return for her wedding later in the year. Her father, Simon, is less happy to see Mendel and can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when his brother is around.
Back in New York, Mendel is introduced to Sarah (Rasmussen) who works for a non-profit and is a recreational trapeze artist (is that really a thing?) and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Mendel can’t get over the ease with which Sarah flies through the air; this must be what it’s like to be a human butterfly. He also begins to experience vivid flashbacks of the horrible day in which his parents perished.
Although Mendel is reluctant to return to Michoacán, he eventually decides to do so, knowing that he and his brother must confront the things separating them that keep them from soaring through the winds like the brightly colored insects they both love.
Gambis, who is not only a filmmaker but also holds a PhD in biology, has a lyrical bent that is shown at various times in the film, as when a young Mendel is covered in a sea of orange and brown monarchs, or showing the beauty of the landscape surrounded by desolation wrought by the greed of men.
His script has some interesting points, but has a tendency to get bogged down on minutiae, so there isn’t the kind of flow you would like to see in a film like this. He is constantly throwing in dream sequences and flashbacks which also disrupt a film that needed a gentle rhythm. Finally, the whole use of butterflies as a metaphor is overused to the point of dreariness.
And these are large issues indeed, but not insurmountable ones and in fact the movie more than makes up for them with compelling performances by Huerta and Hernández, whose chemistry as two brothers, once close but now wary of each other and unsure not only how they got to this point but whether they can get back to what they once were at all. The two have a confrontation near the end of the film that is absolutely riveting and highly emotional; it is the highlight of the film and the centerpiece for it in many ways.
Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia fills the screen with bright butterfly-like colors, while Cristóbal Maryán contributes a score that is delicate and beautiful. The simplicity of life in the village is alluring when contrasted with the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple, although some may find that more to their liking. I found myself succumbing to the charms of the film despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them. This is a very impressive first film for Gambis.
The movie is in the midst of a brief limited run in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other cities. It will arrive on HBO Max on November 2nd.
REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, beautifully scored. The heat between Huerta and Hernández is realistic and powerful. The sequences of village life are lovely. A wonderful examination of the difficulties for even legal immigrants in America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leans a little bit too much on flashbacks, butterfly metaphors and dream sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is given annually to the festival entry that focuses on science as a central theme or scientists as central characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (starting November 2nd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identifying Features
FINAL RATING: 9/10
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