Butter is an irresponsible, wholly offensive exploitation of serious mental illness concerns.
On its surface, new teen dramedy Butter seems like the kind of film in which only a real monster could find fault. From its unconventional protagonist to its anti-bullying messaging, writer-director Paul A. Kaufman has crafted a tale that is bursting with good intentions. Yet something is rotten in the state of Denmark — or, more precisely, the state of Illinois, where our tale of woe is set. Marshall (Alex Kersting) — AKA the titular Butter — is your average 17-year-old high school student, the type of teen who is annoyed by his parents, harbors a secret crush on the most popular girl in school, and finds classes to be a gigantic pain in the ass. But one thing sets Marshall apart from his fellow students: his size. At over 400 pounds, Marshall is grossly overweight, resulting in him being endlessly ridiculed by his peers on a daily basis. After one particularly trying day, Marshall has seemingly reached his breaking point and creates a blog in which he vows to eat himself to death live on camera on New Year’s Eve — which is only five short weeks away. In a surprising twist, Marshall’s suicide proclamation proves the ultimate kickstart to cool, as the popular kids suddenly start hanging out with him, and the girl of his dreams starts looking his way, making him realize that life just might be worth living. In its broad strokes, then, Butter is an after-school special pleading for tolerance, the tale of a bunch of assholes who suddenly realize that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and maybe kindness is the ultimate form of cool.
But in the hands of Kaufman, a grown-ass adult who really should know better, the message gets lost in a sea of troubling plot turns that might prove entertaining in a can-you-believe-this-?! sort of way if they weren’t so harmful. As is addressed early in the film, Marshall’s overeating is a direct result of severe depression, with the constant bullying and a seemingly indifferent father (Brian Van Holt) being major contributors in this cycle. It certainly doesn’t help matters that his mother (Mira Sorvino, who deserves better than this) enables his unhealthy lifestyle by feeding him a nonstop supply of calorie-laden treats. Butter, however, treats the mental illness at its core as an afterthought, as if mentioning it once or twice is sufficient for its tale of teenage suicide and pervasive bullying. No one at Marshall’s school sees his actions as a cry for help or alerts a single authority figure, because then we wouldn’t have time to watch Marshall bowl or drive a car really fast, which is, after all, apparently why we are here. Marshall’s life improves dramatically upon declaring his upcoming suicide, and then — MAJOR SPOILER ALERT — gets even better after his failed attempt, a newfound healthy relationship with his parents and possible entry to Julliard included. Annabeth Gish pops up for a scene as a hospital psychologist who tells Marshall that depression can’t be cured overnight, a claim that Butter instantly refutes by ending on a note of wish fulfillment that seems both irresponsible and downright offensive.
Kaufman is a veteran of numerous Hallmark films, and Butter certainly has that basic cable network sheen and shape, making the messaging somehow even more insulting in its blandly slick presentation. Even its end credits, featuring cutesy cut-outs out of its cast members, seems wholly inappropriate considering the circumstances, one final insult to anyone brave enough to stick it out to the end. Understanding and treating depression, particularly in teens unsure how to advocate for themselves, is immensely important, and anyone having suicidal thoughts should know that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-8255. That a film review of Butter ends with this information while the film itself does not should tell you everything you need to know about not just its quality, but its ethics.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — February 2022.