Playing up to the common discrimination against blind people, Milton Katselas’ BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE is a typical play-turned-cinema experience that contains a close-knit cast and minimal location changes.
A free-spirited 19-year-old blonde Jill Tanner (Hawn) arrives in her San Francisco apartment, and finds out the next-door neighbor is Don Baker (Albert), a blind young man who has a knack of songwriting, mutual attractions are palpable from the start, but the film luxuriates in the conspiratorial chirpiness that it takes some time for Jill to realize Don’s blindness, by intimating viewers beforehand with specific takes on Don’s sightless gestures, and caught off guard, her resultant gaffes are a running joke which may err on the side of multiplicity.
What intrigues and charms Jill and viewers alike, is that Don comes off as a confident, independent youngster who effortlessly defies any stereotyped preconception of a disabled person, their meet-cute scenario is anything but earthshaking, yet the chemistry is efficiously conjured up by the interaction between Jill’s vivaciousness that underscores her bimbo persona and Don’s comical reaction typified from a blind individual’s perspective. After a sortie outside, more tête-à-têtes resume and both open up to each other, carnal knowledge is predestined.
The next day, when Don’s mother Mrs. Baker (Heckart) blows in, the hitherto rom-com tonality starts to veer towards something more confrontational, and Don’s lauded composure starts to crack, because mother knows the best, Don’s outward independence cannot conceal his insecurity in a romantic relationship, especially when Jill makes clear her “no strings attached” credo loud and proud, the ’70s soul-of-liberty cannot be tied down to anybody, and the crux is that Jill can’t bear to impose any harm on Don simply because of his disability, the well-intentioned ableism that Don receives in a daily base and with which is fed up to the back teeth, all he wishes is to be treated as a normal person, no special treatment or kid gloves needed, particularly by the loved ones, it is an instructive lesson both Mrs. Baker and Jill (and by extension, audience) will learn before the film closes up shop.
A sound and well-meaning script from Leonard Gershe, though the substance tends to be slight in terms of scope and sophistication, what the film makes up for is lived-in, pyrotechnic performances from the key trinity, one can argue Hawn, for the large part, rehashes her tried-and-tested screen alter ego that wins her an Oscar in CACTUS FLOWER (1969), her Jill is sweet, sexy, unpretentious and wholesomely empathetic, but here Hawn revs up with more dosage of earnest and self-knowledge, that we know her bitten-back pain and vacillation underneath the cherry-pie insouciance during the climax.
Newcomer Edward Albert (the son of Eddie Albert and Margo) beautifully flexes his muscles and charisma as the blind tunesmith, who can croon a swooning spell (the sentimental titular theme song) to denude any number of nubile girls, but also sticks to his guns when facing an indomitable presence, and never for a moment betraying his own sightedness. Finally, that aforementioned presence is actualized by Heckart, famously for deservedly winning an Oscar as the protective Mrs. Baker, she is allocated with a pyrrhic job to humanize a theoretically unsavory character and accomplishes it with utter distinction, a guilt-driven, high-handed mother who cannot grant her grownup son the independence he hankers after, but via Heckart’s no-nonsense versatility, anyone can well think in Mrs. Baker’s shoes that it is a tough decision that needs more reassurance, and the sheer amountof emotional outpourings she manifests is astounding, eventually, she might even be meritorious to the title of “mother of the year!”, hailed from a resounding hybrid of communicating-room romp and edifying melodrama.
referential entries: Gene Saks’ CACTUS FLOWER (1969, 7.1/10); Guy Green’s A PATCH OF BLUE (1965, 8.1/10).