Butter premiered at the 2020 Cinequest Film Festival in Northern California and has won a few festival awards over the last couple of years - Feature Film Circle Award Winner at New York's Socially Relevant Film Festival in 2020, Best Feature, Director, and Screenplay at NYIFA 2020 - yet, the message of the movie feels like old-school thinking on mental health, let alone the fat liberation and body positivity movements.
The IMDb logline reads: "A lonely ob*se boy everyone calls "Butter" is about to make history. He is going to eat himself to death-live on the Internet-and everyone is invited to watch. When he first makes the announcement online to his classmates, Butter expects pity, insults, and possibly sheer indifference. What he gets are morbid cheerleaders rallying around his deadly plan. Yet as their dark encouragement grows, it begins to feel a lot like popularity. And that feels good. But what happens when Butter reaches his suicide deadline? Can he live with the fallout if he doesn't go through with his plans?"
Consider this your spoiler warning!
For 102 minutes of the movie our main character is referred to as Butter, a mean nickname forced upon him by his bully and tormentor. With 9 minutes left (including 4 minutes of end credits), the audience learns his name is Marshall. He will be referred to as Marshall in this review.
Marshall is a lonely kid with good grades and an immense skill with the Saxophone, and although he's pretty friendless, a lot of that stems from his low self-esteem and self-imposed isolation. His mother is hyper-focused on his weight (as are his doctors, but this film skips over addressing healthcare discrimination and weight bias) continuously perpetuating outdated stereotypes and already antiquated diet culture practices. (Worth noting that Marshall is diabetic, a fact that filmmakers don't grasp as their portrayal would've placed him in a diabetic coma before reaching the one minute mark.)
Butter presents an archaic caricature, abhorrently reinforcing fat people stereotypes with Marshall's insatiable appetite, his sloven attire, his a lack of interest or ability to play sports. Unfortunately, through the 111 minutes in this film, most of these antiquated attributes are not debunked or dismantled. In the spirit of fairness, once Marshall has friends, his wardrobe does significantly improve. (Again, the film missing an opportunity by not addressing the frustration and anxiety a majority of fat people experience regularly when shopping at your average mall.) Magically, Marshall finds clothing that fit him and look nice.
As Marshall gains popularity he also begins starving himself.
While any living person can tell you that the act of not eating is neither healthy nor recommended for anyone, ever, when Marshall's mother brings it up to his doctor, Marshall suggests his appetite has decreased because he's busy. This distracts his doctor, Doctor Bean, and changes the discussion to his interest in fellow classmate, Anna. Everyone continues to applaud Marshall's weight loss, never again to broach the subject of Marshall's obvious disordered eating behaviors.
Later, after Marshall attempts to kill himself (instigated by bullying, years of isolation, constant fat-shaming, and toxic diet culture) he is in the hospital, surrounded by notes and gifts from well wishers. Instead of asking him about what led to this situation, Marshall's doctor, Bean - whom we were told early in this film is someone this character might consider a confidant - spends this time lecturing. Dr. Bean sees Anna, the love interest, is upset as she leaves Marshall's bedside. Bean's response? "She's definitely upset. I get it - For maybe, what you did to her..." Suggesting his suicide attempt hurt her. "I know I'm upset too," he adds. This person just tried to end their life and your instinct is to tell them, at this moment, how unhappy it made you feel? Dr. Bean makes him promise he won't do it again; that Marshall won't put him in this position again (!!!) Eventually assuring Marshall, "you can talk to us, anytime. There's no shame in that," but not before lecturing him: "You know your mom and dad they, you caused them a lot of pain."
This is just one of the many moments which make viewers wonder how this film isn't a parody.
Another Doctor visited Marshall in the hospital, Dr. Jennice, who recommends Marshall seek therapy as part of her assessment over whether Marshall is still a danger to himself or if he should be released. Her arrival should mark a turning point for the film, a voice of reason. Unfortunately, most of the scene was baffling to watch, especially as it veered into her congratulating Marshall on more weight loss, "They weighed you when you were in a coma." A surprised Marshall claims it is a nearly 50 lbs loss since he was last weighed around Thanksgiving. "Lucky you! Most of us gain weight during the holidays."
Allow me to remind you that He. Was. In. A. Coma. After attempting suicide! But sure, let's continue to uphold the belief that thinness is all that matters.
Most "feel good" movies result in some sort of character growth, or the main character learns to love themselves. Usually the people in their life end up learning something too. At the end of Butter, Marshall - along with his parents, peers, and doctors - are still relentless regarding weight loss.
So, in complete honesty, what was the message of this movie?
Should you want to see this movie, Butter will hit theaters on February 25th. Visit FANVERSATION to see what Writer/Director Paul A. Kaufman had to say and the message he hopes viewers take away from the film.
-- Yael Tygiel