Synopsis: A lonely obese 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.
Stars: Alex Kersting, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, Brian Van Holt, Ravi Patel, Annabeth Gish, McKayley Miller, Jack Griffo, Adain Bradley, Natalie Valerin, Jake Austin Walker, Matthew Gold, Monte Markham, Jessie Rabideau
Director: Paul A. Kaufman
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: The earliest uses of butter have been traced back to Roman and Greek history, with the dairy product made from churned cream thought to mainly serve as a rare delicacy for the less refined communities of people and, later, medicinal needs of the day. Over time, butter has been thought to be good for you, bad for you, essential, take-it-or-leave-it, and currently lives in that gray zone of “in moderation” that leaves it to the consumer to decide how much buttered popcorn is the right amount. Butter, the food is no longer bad for your health. On the other hand, Butter, the movie, isn’t likely to cure what ails you.
Based on Erin Jade Lange’s 2015 young adult novel of the same name and adapted by director Paul A. Kaufman, this is another in a long list of modern high school dramedies tacking a delicate social issue but doing so with gloves made of steel wool. The characters we are supposed to dislike are appropriately disdainful, but so are many of the people we’re apparently meant to like, including the leading man. Instead of finding the simple message of positivity leading to a lesson of impact as a take-away, Butter would rather focus on rougher edges of personalities. As written, they’re entirely irritating.
Overweight Arizona teen Marhsall (Alex Kersting) earned the nickname Butter after being forced to eat a stick of it by a group of high-school bullies who later claimed they saw him eat it of his own free will. Able to believe the obese teenager would snack on eight tablespoons of the salted spreadable, his classmates cruelly adopted the moniker, which has stuck with him ever since. Though his caring mother (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino, Union Square) has tried to help him through various weight-loss programs, she’s also part of the problem with her supersized meals that are more comfort than carb-conscious.
Preferring to keep to himself playing his saxophone alone or with his teacher (Mykelti Williamson, Clean, in his second movie released in 2022 where the writing of a role underserves him) and chatting online under false pretenses with Anna (McKayley Miller, Ma), the pretty girl from school with her own problems with popularity, his outlook changes when, fed up with the teasing and endless visits to his physician, he decides to take control over how people see him. Starting a website called Butter’s Last Meal, he asks for ideas on menu selections for a final feast he will gorge on until he eats himself to death. To his surprise, once the high schoolers discover his site and realize what he’s doing, he finds himself let into the inner sanctum of popularity…and growing closer to Anna than ever. Is all of this new respect something he’s earned by putting himself out there, losing weight in the process? Or are the kids being friendly with him as a way to goad him on in his final task?
Knowing the temperature of the country’s climate with high schoolers feeling distant from their classmates and existing estrangement only amplified, it feels tonally off base to embrace this movie being marketed as one to be enjoyed by families. For one, I can’t imagine the targeted teen demographic sitting down and wanting to sit through it with their parents more than I could see adults finding enough interest in the story or actors to seek it out above other available titles. That leaves Butter in a slippery spot with no actual viewer pool that I can see. The message is also completely muddled because we’re essentially dealing with a bullied teen announcing his plans to kill himself and no one (no one) mentions this to school officials or his family.
Had Kaufman’s script explored some of the pain that goes along with these decisions, the growing distrust teens have for those in roles of authority, and let us view the impact on Butter’s plan, it would have humanized everyone so much more. Instead, it all plays as a surface exercise in popularity and how it is a status symbol easily given and just as quickly taken away. The characters, then, can only be seen in a questionable light, and that’s hard to reconcile the more the film progresses. The truth is that Kersting isn’t the most magnetic performer either, and that plays a factor in how Butter’s journey goes over with his community. The only acting that seemed to be on the right track is from Annabeth Gish (Mystic Pizza), but she shows up so late in the run that it’s too late to undo some of the damage.
I hope there’s an expiration date on films like Butter, movies that might have the noblest of intentions but aren’t structurally built to support those lofty goals. You can see where the original material might have been making an effort to say something about that intoxicating popularity nod and how important it is for some to get it, even at the expense of their well-being. Sadly, it doesn’t translate in the feature film adaptation. Maybe with a cast that could work magic with the material, it would have transformed into more than the sum of its parts, but as it stands now, Butter is spoiled.