Mardi Gras Film Festival 2023 Review: Where Butterflies Don’t Fly (Kam motýli nelétají) ★★★

When a bullied gay teen and his discreetly gay teacher are stranded in a complex cave system, they both need to drop their pretenses and learn to survive in order to escape in writer-director Roman Němec’s claustrophobic feature debut, Where Butterflies Don’t Fly. Also there are sandwiches, but we’ll get to that later.

Daniel (Daniel Krejčík) is a bright, but lazy student on the verge of failing to graduate. At home, his parents fight constantly. At school, he’s bullied for being gay. He keeps his head down, headphones on and tries to get through the day. Adam (Jiří Vojta), is the school’s gym and literature teacher. Perfect on the outside, he doesn’t discuss his homelife at work. On a school trip, Daniel goes missing. While searching for him, Adam falls into a crevice and ends up with the lost student. Together they explore the caves, talk about life and slowly bond.

Beautiful visuals bring the film to life. Cinematographer Vojtěch Hrnčíř captures the breathtaking appeal of the caves with a dramatic lens and that’s a good thing, as we’re down there for a long time (in fact, at just over two hours, the film could use a trim). The excellent framing and sense of motion, stop the film from potentially feeling “theatrical” with its confined location and small cast.

Where Butterflies Don’t Fly is essentially a two-hander between gay men from different generations. One is professional and unassuming, assimilating perfectly into the heterosexual world he lives in and keeping his private life to himself. The other is a proud young man without any goals or guides to help him through life, and who refuses to conform to anyone’s standards other than his own. 

From here, it feels like Němec is unsure which direction to take the story in. There is an effort to provide sexual tension, with the camera lingering on shots of shirtless teens playing basketball and climbing rocks, suggesting Adam’s eye is inappropriately wandering to the student body. Coupled with a script that emphasizes, multiple times, that many of these teens are nineteen, it seems to be laying groundwork for a problematic attraction between teacher and student while giving the character some leeway. Adam’s boyfriend David even jokes about him leading a camp of hot teenagers…surely he must enjoy it a little bit? Plus David makes Adam the world’s worst sandwiches, so obviously we’re not rooting for them as a couple!

The relationship between Adam and Daniel is a bumpy one, with Daniel’s almost nihilistic, immature views sparring with Adam’s work hard ethics. As they’re forced to cooperate to find a way out, Daniel sees the benefits of applying himself and Adam learns to relax and open up a little. By providing Daniel a role-model, not just academically, but as a gay man, Adam proves he’s more than just a good teacher. 

The survival drama aspect is perhaps more successful—the slowly ramping up of tension, from rising waters, to a lack of rations or perilous climbs—works to drive us to a third act with a neat climax. Where Butterflies Don’t Fly has a strong premise delivered with a solid, if rather generic execution that’s less than cinematic than it could have been. Stick around for a post-credits scene that gives the film a cute and uplifting coda.

By Chad Armstrong

Where Butterflies Don’t Fly receives its Sydney premiere at the 30th Annual Mardi Gras Film Festival running February 15th until March 2nd, 2023. Click here for screening details and tickets.

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