“It’s not about how many times you get hit, it’s abut how many times you get back up.” A flash of Rocky Balboa machismo seems inevitable in Float Like A Butterfly, another dose of feel-good Irish quasi-realism from the producers of Once and Sing Street. But Carmel Winters’ film, her second after 2010’s Snap, complicates the sentiment, delivering it in a moment of desperation, as a proud Traveller forces his meek son into a seaside fistfight he’s wholly untrained for.
For the teenage Frances (Hazel Doupe), fighting is a means of asserting herself in a world where hostility comes from multiple directions. She’s already seen what it looks like when authority sticks the boot in: after a bust-up with a sneering Garda Sergeant (Aidan O’Hare), her mother was killed and her father put away in prison. Everyday Traveller life in 60s/70s rural Ireland is one of uncertainty and humiliation: people shouting insults in the street or taking advantage of a young girl coming to their door for some spuds. Frances’ hero is Muhammad Ali, his status as “the greatest, I said that before I knew I was” helping her stay big when she feels small.
Ali’s struggle provides a mirror for Frances and the poor people around her. Identifying with Ali’s narratives of an oppressed minority finally standing up for themselves, Grandad (Lalor Roddy ) calls Travellers the “blacks of Ireland”, and in the malicious demands for respect from the Garda there is that universal grin of assumed natural superiority. As he tells Frances, it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees. When Frances hears Ali is coming to Dublin, she vows to make the fight.
When her father Michael (Dara Devaney) is released on bail, he’s aghast to find her attending school, and takes her and her brother out on the roads, framing it as rebellion against the conformity of the settled. But his pride is a cover for shame and insecurity. When they visit his cousin, who has married a non-Traveller and lives in an actual house, Michael acts out in a pouting, defensive rage. Float Like A Butterfly finds the charm and lyricism of Traveller culture, but doesn’t pull any punches in showing its blindspots too. In moments of stress, the tone can shift from light-hearted jape to grim domestic abuse.
Frances’ fight is with her own too, in a culture with tight gender roles and courtship traditions, where woman are essentially property transferred from father to husband, a match arranged with a spit handshake and a quick head-to-toe in the street. Here, men skin rabbits, get drunk and fight, while the women have babies, looking after them on their own when the father gets himself killed or put away by the authorities. A screaming infant on a dirty campsite doesn’t look much like empowerment.
Float Like A Butterfly is ramblier and less straightforward than the expected empowerment-in-the-ring narrative (IMDB describes it as a gender-inverted Billy Elliot, which is too far), and Ali’s visit to Dublin turns out not to be much of a plot point. But the film is better for it: taut, prickly performances from Doupe and Devaney hold their tension until the final breakthrough and catharsis. Conor Smyth
Float Like A Butterfly will be released at a later date. The Belfast Film Festival runs until 20th April.