Set in the 1970s, ‘Float Like a Butterfly’ follows Frances (Doupe), a teenage girl from the Travelling community. She’s family-oriented, but high-spirited and independent, inspired by her idol Muhammad Ali to casually train as a boxer herself. When her father (Devaney) is released from prison, Frances finds herself caught between her own dreams and desires, and the way of life he envisions for her and her younger brother Patrick.
It’s clear early on that, despite the title and set-up, ‘Float Like a Butterfly’ doesn’t follow what may be the expected plot trajectory of Frances following her dream and overcoming all adversity by becoming a successful boxer. The title really is fitting here, evoking the style of writer/director Carmel Winters’ film just as much as the fighting style of Mr. Cassius Clay himself. It’s loosely-plotted, but not aimless, fluttering along with our characters, pausing at times to deliver a thematic gut-punch. Yet amidst the family drama, and social commentary about gender roles and class politics, we do get some tranquil, more low-key scenes of life within the Travelling community and Frances trying to find herself within - or without - it.
While the film’s narrative may not be as you may expect, to its benefit, the script does occasionally veer into cliché in terms of characterisation. (Can you name an Irish period drama that doesn’t feature an alcoholic, physically-abusive, emotionally-stunted Da?) That said, father/daughter relationships are still among the least-seen family dynamics on-screen, and are ripe for exploration. Hazel Doupe and Dara Devaney powerfully command the screen during their turbulent scenes together, channelling the love, tinged with disappointment and grief, that they share, and both should be commended for their terrific performances.
It’s clear from its more confrontational, character-focused moments that Winters has a background in theatre, but ‘Float Like a Butterfly’ doesn’t feel stagey. Scenes set on the halting site, on the road, and one dramatic confrontation with a group of farmers are beautifully-shot, suitably atmospheric and even contemplative in a distinctly cinematic way.
The fiddle-and-banjo-driven soundtrack is a little on-the-nose and overbearing, and could have been reined in - especially as the most effective musical moments in the film are diegetic, featuring Frances singing to herself, or recalling her late mother’s lullabies. Indeed, whenever the film tries to go too big, it loses its way, as with its tonally-muddled climax, but overall, it’s structurally sound enough to come back from this.
Some may be disappointed not to get a more conventional Katie Taylor-inspired ‘Girl Rocky’, but as a character drama, ‘Float Like a Butterfly’ is confidently its own kind of film, a moving and powerful story with a strong central performance from newcomer Hazel Doupe. While not a total knockout, writer/director Winters effectively delivers some gut-punching family drama that will occasionally leave you floored.