Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Directed by #GarrySykes
Film review by Nathanial Eker
I've never been partial to "scripted reality" shows like Geordie Shore. Perhaps then, an experimental, art-house approach to documenting the lives of the working-class residents of Newcastle on Tyne is the perfect alternative to explore the famous city and its characterful people. Alas, while Drunken Butterflies offers glimpses of genius, its core stylistic gimmick quickly becomes its greatest hindrance, and it ultimately offers little more than a semi-interesting dive into Geordie culture.
Chloe (Leanne Rutter) is in a pickle. She's accused of being unfaithful to her boyfriend, Liam; the brother of Queen Bee, Tracy Bell (Tracy Bell). Chloe quickly discovers who her real friends are as two rival groups develop, one led by Tracy, and one consisting of Chloe's old pals Nicky (Katie Quinn) and Isla (Amanda Hodgson). What follows is an exploration of Geordieism that both critiques and honours the Newcastle natives' charming idiosyncrasies.
It is a clear adoration for Newcastle and its people that gives the film much of its charm. Director Garry Sykes pulls no punches and presents an uncompromising view of the working-class Geordie youths. Fights are had, cocaine is snorted, and many of the characters spend their screentime "slagging off" their supposed friends. However, it is this gritty authenticity that gives the film its edge, as it presents a brutally honest view of the darker sides of modern-day working-class youth.
This commentary is extenuated by the film's decision to blend fiction and reality, as evidenced by one actor playing a (presumably exaggerated) version of themselves. Sykes cleverly weaves in short mockumentary segments in which supposed interviewees give their testaments of the main characters' histories, quirks, and flaws. Much of the film's dialogue is also reportedly improvised, both to its benefit and detriment. Indeed, while the conversations occasionally add an extra layer of genuineness, they mostly feel forced and awkward.
The hit-and-miss performances of the leads also don't help things. Tracy Bell and her two cronies fare well, but regrettably, the supposed kinship of Chloe, Nicky, and Isla is utterly unbelievable, thanks to a trio of wooden performances and a vacuum of chemistry.
Thematically, however, Drunken Butterflies fares a little better. It effectively tackles issues of the struggling youth, sexual assault, and sub-communities, with overtones of classism. Most interesting, however, are the film's feminist commentaries. The majority of the cast is female, and there is only one male character of substance; Chloe's ex, Liam. Sykes transforms the rest of the male cast into a metaphor for sexual assault, even disallowing the "frat boy" antagonists a voice of their own. They instead become an embodiment of male oppression, less than subtly highlighting the need for female allyship and unity.
What is less successful is the film's structure. Drunken Butterflies prides itself on being an intriguing blend of reality and fiction, but regrettably, and despite a decent build in tension, the ending falls flat. The film stops without much of a resolution and ultimately leaves us wondering what the point was. Is this a love letter to Newcastle? An art-house experiment? Or a fictional tale about a group of working-class girls with a female empowerment message? Sykes seemingly attempts all three, and the result is messier than a beer-driven fight at Wetherspoons. The implementation of various filters, colour palettes, and even a phone camera offer an experimental aesthetic that gels well with the fictional parts of the story, yet it clashes terribly with the supposed documentary segments.
Drunken Butterflies is an admirable film. It clearly boasts an affection for its home and the elements that work serve as a fitting homage to the people it represents. However, despite some intuitive moments, Garry Sykes' film is too unfocused and stylistically jarring to recommend comfortably. The razor-sharp commentary of the film's first ten minutes soon blunts as it devolves into a muddle of disparate ideas, styles, and storylines.