Butter (2020)

The intensity of a teen boy confronting his own end.

(2020) Dramedy (Blue Fox) Alex Kersting, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, McKaley Miller, Annabeth Gish, Brian Van Holt, Jack Griffo, Monte Markham, Ravi Patel, John Kassir, Jake Austin Walker, Rachel Wotherspoon, Adain Bradley, Natalie Valerin, Matthew Gold, Nikki Tuazon, Jessie Rabideau, Danielle Langlois, Walker Barnes, Shannon Kiely, Taj Speights, Olivia Baptista. Directed by Paul A. Kaufman

 

We are a society that demands conformity and regards those who fail to conform with suspicion and, just as often, with derision. Nowhere is that more apparent than in high schools, where those who don’t “fit in” often become the targets of bullying. Sometimes, just getting out of bed and going to school can be an at of heroism.

Butter (Kersting) is a morbidly obese high school junior in a suburban high school in Phoenix, where his parents lead more-than-comfortable lives. His mom (Sorvino) adores him and is his rock; she is also his enabler, often soothing his depression with his favorite food. To his dad (Van Holt), Butter is a disappointment, when he bothers to notice him at all. Oh, and the name? It’s an unwelcome nickname foisted on him after a group of bullies forced him to eat a whole stick of butter. Like most things, Butter just accepts it and lives with it.

He yearns for friendships, particularly from Anna (Miller), the prettiest girl in school whom he has a major crush on. He is a talented musician, a soulful sax player which his music teacher (Williamson) has noticed; he tries to get Butter to join the jazz band but Butter isn’t interested in standing in front of people and giving them another opportunity to make him a target. He is content to stay at home on the Internet, where he can create his own persona as a sensitive jock from another school, which enables him to chat with Anna, whom he believes wouldn’t give him the time of day if she knew who he really was.

After one lunch room humiliation too many, Butter reaches a breaking point (or, perhaps more aptly, a melting point). He creates a website where he announces his intention to eat himself to death on live stream on New Year’s Eve at midnight. He figures nobody will care anyway.

A curious thing happens, though; when he arrives at school the next day, people are treating him differently, like a hero rather than a target. A couple of popular boys take him under their wing and introduce him to others in their circle. For the first time in his life, he feels accepted and it changes his outlook on things. He even begins to lose weight, quite unintentionally.

But nobody is trying to convince him to change his mind. Nobody seems to think he’ll actually go through with it, and nobody reports his intentions to an adult – in fact, they advise him to password-protect the site so that adults can’t access it. In fact, his friends somewhat ghoulishly help him plan the menu for his final meal. But will Butter go through with it, now that he has something to live for? And if he doesn’t go through with it, will things end up being worse than before?

The issue of teen bullying has been tackled in documentaries and films for quite a while now; Erin Jade Lange, who wrote the book that this is based on, has written several that include teen bullying as a central theme. In that sense, there isn’t a lot of subject matter that’s particularly new here. That said, though, the movie packed a lot of resonance in it, especially for those who have endured the kind of hazing both physical and psychological that Butter endures (his real name, by the way, isn’t revealed until near the end of the film, and I won’t tell you what it is here). I have to admit, for the sake of transparency, that I was bullied during that time in my life, although not as severely as depicted here. I often felt the same way Butter did, and can relate to him eating to relieve the pain. To this day, I use food as a means of self-medication.

And to be honest, this isn’t to point fingers at anyone; I’ve forgiven those who were mean to me back then and moved on long ago. This just is to explain why I do feel an empathy for Butter – not just the character, but the film – that others might not. And quite frankly, there are some moments in the movie that brought tears to my eyes, including one in which Butter’s mother realizes the depth of his pain and how she has failed to see it. It’s a credit to Kersting and Sorvino that the scene works so well; it could have been a moment that came off as maudlin (and, to be fair, others do come off that way) but it winds up being absolutely heartbreaking and cathartic. Kersting, in his first lead role, gives Butter a great deal of personality. He feels like a real kid with real suffering. Miller also does a good job with Anna, who turns out to have more depth to her than even Butter gave her credit for.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and at some times it tries to use a light touch when a heavier hand would have done, and vice versa, but it does hit the mark more often than it misses, and becomes, overall, a really moving film. Not everyone will be as affected by it as I have, but those who can look back at (or are right in the middle of) their high school years with bittersweet, conflicting feelings may well find this movie just what they need to get by.

REASONS TO SEE: Really speaks to the outsider in all of us, particularly those who have been teased for their weight. Kersting is very personable. The cast is strong throughout, particularly Sorvino who has a wonderful relationship with Kersting. Some very wrenching moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some serious adult themes involving teen suicide, profanity, violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2012 young adult novel by Erin Jade Lange.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Virgin Suicides
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Creation Stories

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