“BUTTERFLY CAUGHT” is the first film from writer/director Manny Rodriguez Jr. that is gaining some momentum on the film festival circuit. It recently screened at the SDiFF where it won Best Ensemble Film. It followed up with another screening at LiFF where it won Best US Narrative Feature and it is showing no signs of slowing down as it continues through the festival rounds.
This is the story of trying to make it in Hollywood. The realistic, more practical version. A story that doesn’t paint the business in a negative light, or a positive one. A story that feels raw, gritty at times, and from the heart. “Butterfly Caught” is “La La Land” without the candy coating, massive budget, and dance numbers. It follows a narrative that is happening to thousands of aspiring actors and actresses as you read this. This is the story of three women who all converge on Los Angeles to achieve their dreams. It explores the different paths an aspiring performers life can take when trying to get their break the industry, the sacrifices they will be confronted with, and the effect rejection can have on a person’s psyche.
I cover as many film festivals as possible because I love movies. Simple as that. I see a good amount of major theatrical releases monthly, but only going to the cinema to see movies is not much different than shopping from only one isle of a massive grocery store. Take a film like the “The Snowman” for example that launched in theaters across the country with its studio backing and star-power to ride on. It simply is not a good movie that showed issues on many levels. It is a film that was not worthy of the wide-release. But for every film like “The Snowman” there are ten films (or more) like “Butterfly Caught” that do not get the recognition, or the audience exposure they should.
This turned out to be a fantastic film on many levels. Writing, direction, performances, production design, you name it and this film showed effort and ambition. I take festival films with a grain of salt because with so many projects of varying skill levels, you never know what you are going to get. With this film, I saw the synopsis and it interested me. I noticed it was from a first-time writer/director, so I wanted to check it out. I always want to see a person’s first project for a variety of reasons. From sheer curiosity, to the desire of wanting to see what someone brings with their first film. Or the possibility of a new perspective. The unknowns with a first-time filmmaker are endless. This one from Rodriguez Jr. was many things, but one thing it did not feel like, was someone’s first feature film.
The story starts with a thought-provoking narrative that sets the foundations for the story and gives a perspective on the acting business. It captures how Los Angeles can make peoples dreams come true, or provide the realization that they will never come become a reality. Sometimes with the subtly of a shovel to the face. The story-line flows nicely into the characters being incorporated and developed and it didn’t take long to feel like I was watching a large budget film, from a veteran filmmaker.
The lighting, selections of backdrops, and editing, were extremely polished but not flashy. It was capable, from an artistic eye, and it pulled me in. Rodriguez Jr. in an unassuming way creates a visually appealing film with his techniques. He frames up the scenes in a variety of ways with some traditional shots blended in. He weaves a more artistic approach to the shots at times. Like having the focal character in the scene deeper in the frame with blurred objects in the foreground for instance.
He uses angles and reflections perfectly and it may not catch your eye outright, but it was effective in adding a rich depth to many scenes. Throughout a bulk of the film while we follow the characters the camera-work was much more traditional. It creates an intimate, fly-on-the-wall feeling that added an immersive element to the scenes. As the viewer you feel like you are sitting in with the characters watching their lives unfold, as opposed to watching performances. And it was a combination of natural dialogue that didn’t feel scripted, and a strong cast that pulled it off.
Something that can hinder any independent film despite the potential it may show, is cast performances. It’s understandable as many are still crafting their skill and everyone, no matter what their field may be, will improve with practice. But this cast was surprisingly capable from top-to-bottom and it has been a long time since I’ve seen an indie film with such a competent group of performers. They all feel perfectly tailored to their roles and they provide just the right doses of emotional impact when the script calls on them, without over-acting. You can buy this group as friends all trying to make it in the business and their interactions were realistic. You can connect with them, they feel like real people, and it makes you want to see how this story will end for each of them.
Despite a solid cast though, Jess Jacobs and Grant Liffmann do carry the spotlight. Their characters have a deeply emotional story-arc with many compelling scenes and Liffmann and Jacobs pour themselves into these roles. It gives the material they are working with the true impact it deserves and their natural chemistry resonates so well onscreen. Their characters were demanding and they both rose to the occasion, as did the entire cast.
This script was able to take multiple lives and tell their stories over a smooth progression with a seamless flow between them. Their character-arcs were all well-developed with enough substance to capture your attention and their stories all unfold with an enjoyable pace. The different story angles all overlap perfectly to keep the intrigue and unpredictability high. It ramps up timely doses of tension and weaves a satisfying third-act that left me thinking. The film doesn’t force any notes, it keeps the focus on the reality of the industry and captures the real Hollywood people experience every day. Without ever feeling like it was glamorizing certain elements, or forcing melodramatics.
Manny Rodriguez Jr. had a vision. On paper it was structured, loaded with substance and complete. From there he took it to the next level with skilled direction. He crafts a crisp film for a first-time writer/director and it will be fun to see what he can do in the future. If you love film festivals put this movie on your radar. If not, still seek this film out to see if it is screening at a festival near you because it will grab your attention, and leave you thinking.