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Hot Docs Film Review – The Butterfly Effect

by Kevin Frick

Filmmaker Kelly O’Brien’s documentary The Butterfly Effect is a charming short film about the power of music and the synergy within families. The film opens on a man teaching ukulele chords to a young girl. After a brief title card, the girl practices the chords in front of her dresser mirror. These intimate shots are presented so gracefully and the pacing so comfortable that, by the time the narration began, I already felt a connection to this family.  

O’Brien introduces us to Willow, a ten-year old girl preparing an act for her school talent show. Willow has become discouraged because her first idea for her performance (singing a hit pop song) didn’t meet her expectations. As the narrator puts it: “I think the gap between her version and the one on the radio was more than she could bear.” So now she is practicing a different song she learned to play on the ukulele.

O’Brien then introduces us to Teddy. Teddy is a physically and mentally disabled boy who appears to be Willow’s brother. He uses a wheeled walker and has a recording device called a “switch” that helps him communicate. On this particular morning, Willow records her song on Teddy’s switch and the film comes together and reveals its theme.

We learn that Willow has struggled with performing in front of people, but is inspired to perform her song for Teddy. She uses that inspiration to find the courage to perform at her school talent show. Her description of how she felt about her performance demonstrates that she has developed a new level of maturity through the experience. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Yeah, I want people to enjoy my song, but I also wanted myself to be happy about it and not just have other people tell me what to think about it.” 

When Willow’s song is played on Teddy’s switch at his school, he is so moved that he takes his first assisted steps in years. The image of Teddy moving to the sound of Willow’s song is a very satisfying emotional payoff indeed. “You’re dancing!” exclaim his caregivers. 

The film concludes with images of a sunny meadow filled with butterflies. The narrator explains the meaning of “the butterfly effect” – how a small change or insignificant event can lead unpredictably to larger consequences. In this case the butterfly’s wings were moved by the power of music.

The Butterfly Effect created by Kelly O’Brien recently screened at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. hotdocs.ca

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