Cary Bell’s touching, inspirational, and introspective documentary, “Butterfly Girl,” takes a look inside the life of unique teenager Abigail Evans. The second she appears on screen, there is something positively bubbly and endearing about this young girl. She sits in the passenger seat of her dad’s van, heading towards another honky tonk, singing, and dancing along to some music. A few short scenes in the bar are all you need to know that Abbie is the kind of supremely laid-back, sociable, and very funny person everyone needs in life. And if an ace personality wasn’t enough, she’s also noticeably good-looking. But, Abbie is far from being a regular teenager. She was born with a rare disease called Epidermolysis bullosa (EB), an inherited condition “without the gene that keeps skin together,” as she explains. If that sounds like the makings of a documentary that will completely bum you out, just wait.
One brilliant transition speaks volumes when Bell and editor Jessica Miller cut away from the noisy and vibrant honky tonk lifestyle to the unfortunately familiar setting of a doctor’s office. Abbie waits to be examined for what feels like the umpteenth time (her face says it all) and talks about the hardships of her disease and its side effects on her life. It’s the kind of stuff that’s tough to stomach for most people (full disclosure, some shots made me queasy), mostly because it looks like total physical torment, and sounds like mental agony. The camera doesn’t shy away from getting real close on Abbie’s hands, as she explains how her fingernails fell off when she was born. Or on her feet, while her mother, Stacie, takes her sneakers off to reveal painful-looking blisters, as she explains how fragile her skin is to the touch. But always ready to battle this merciless pain we see on screen is Abbie’s fearlessly positive attitude. It’s so infectious and uplifting you’ll fight back an urge to reach out and give the girl a hug, or perhaps have her give one to you (because, believe it or not, you probably need it more than she does).
Her dad explains how she was expected to die of infection within two weeks of being born, and she routinely needs to be fed with a syringe that connects to a hole in her stomach, yet for all this looming gloom, “Butterfly Girl” remains surprisingly upbeat. Abbie turns the most mundan things in the world, like opening boxes, into a constructive ritual: it’s her version of physical therapy. On the morning of her esophagus surgery, she’s inspired to make pancakes. They turn out green, but who cares? Not Abbie. This is the kind of story that has every chance (and plenty of reason) to transform into glaringly sentimental hogwash, but almost always keeps itself in check through subtly clever filmmaking techniques, and one exceptional young girl.
Yes, there are times when “Butterfly Girl” feels like a by-the-numbers segment from some kind of reality-based A&E show worthy of the sub-heading: “Teens Struggling With Disease, And What They Teach Us.” But, holding that particular grudge for too long is like constantly complaining about the leaves on one tree in the middle of a beautiful forest. This is Bell’s directorial debut, and she should be commended for holding nothing back in terms of showing us the effects of Abbie’s disease (both physical and emotional), instead of chastised for questionable structure decisions or standard documentary techniques. Together with Miller, cinematographer Matthew Godwin (his daylight and “magic hour” exterior shots are gorgeous), and the finely tuned original music by Abbie’s father John and singer Emily Nell (slightly overused, but saved by being used in scenes other filmmakers drown in sappy chords), Cary Bell’s “Butterfly Girl” is no reality TV show segment, it’s painstaking reality itself, told in confident style.
The filmmakers do a wonderful job behind the scenes, but every compliment begins and ends with Abbie. The only thing that makes Abigail Evans different than any other teenager on the brink of turning nineteen is her EB. The balancing act of an atypical condition with typical struggles of a vivacious young woman is the glue that keeps “Butterfly Girl” consistently strong. A distressing story, to be sure, but one that belongs to a young girl whose unforgettable fortitude is undeniably encouraging. She’s the strongest girl I’ve ever seen on screen. [B+]