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Movie about bullied teen is, like its hero, sweet and likable

Pat Padua

THE WASHINGTON POST – What lengths will a lonely teenager go to for clicks? In director Paul A Kaufman’s coming-of-age film Butter (based on the 2012 novel by Erin Jade Lange), an overweight adolescent (Alex Kersting) is so desperate for attention that he plans a gruesome live stream for New Year’s Eve: He’ll eat himself to death. Yet as befits a film set during the Christmas season, this anti-bullying drama charts an encouraging arc of redemption – and not just for his tormentors.

Butter, as the protagonist is known – after a classmate (Jake Austin Walker) forces him to eat a whole stick – seems to have everything he needs in life, except someone to listen to him. His distant, perfectionist father (Brian Van Holt) and doting but clueless mother (Mira Sorvino), who serves him artery-clogging portions of his favourite junk food, deny him nothing. They’ve even given him a sporty blue Mustang.

Yet none of this makes Butter happy. The high school junior harbours a crush on Anna (McKaley Miller of Hart of Dixie), the prettiest girl in class. Hiding behind a virtual persona, he chats with her online. A gifted saxophone player, he even writes her a song, and she falls for this mystery lover. But when he tries to talk to her in real life, it’s a disaster, and he nurses his psychic wounds with a fast-food binge, recounted in hard-boiled narration: “I couldn’t remember what anything had tasted like, but I had to keep eating… I ate to relieve my pain… I ate to forget.”

There’s at least one supportive adult at school: Butter’s music teacher (Mykelti Williamson) recognises his talent and invites him to sit in with his jazz group for a New Year’s Eve gig.

Still, Butter’s self-esteem is so damaged that he announces his own, alternate plan. But when classmates find the website he’s set up to document his suicide, something curious happens: Although some die-hard bullies still make fun of him, others – like Trent (Adain Bradley), who gets to know Butter – seem to genuinely like him. Even Anna, who doesn’t realise that Butter is her online suitor, starts talking to him. What would happen if she found out he’s the boy she’s been chatting with online? The plot of Butter vaguely recalls the Frank Capra classic Meet John Doe, which similarly revolved around the planning of a sensationalistic suicide. (You might call this Eat John Doe). And with a slick look from cinematographer Greg Gardiner, Butter kind of plays like a version of Capra’s feel-good shtick (sometimes known as “Capra-corn”) for the Nickelodeon set. This makes sense in a way, since one of Butter’s classmates is played by Jack Griffo of the Nickelodeon show The Thundermans. That kids-show sheen is somewhat unfortunate, because it undercuts the film’s darker themes, bubbling under the cookie-cutter banality. While the movie is on one level a cautionary tale about schoolyard taunts and obesity, it also seems to be about something, er, bigger: a society that is obsessed with appearance, while also, paradoxically, encouraging overconsumption.

McKaley Miller (L) and Alex Kersting in ‘Butter’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST