Despite serious issues like suicide and bullying, ‘Butter’ succeeds in bringing back spirit of 1980s teen romance-dramedies

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Image used with permission from Butter's Final Meal LLC

Actress McKaley Miller (left) plays Anna McGuinn, the popular high school girl who has a serious conversation with actor Alex Kersting’s character, Marshall, in the teen romance-dramedy, “Butter,” to be released in theaters nationwide Friday, Feb. 25. This is Kersting’s first lead role in a movie.

Krishna Thaker

This story was updated on March 5 with the correct high school setting for the movie. Instead of South Scottsdale High, the film takes place at West Scottsdale High.

For those seeking a respite from superhero or zombie movies, look no further than “Butter.”

Set for a nationwide release in theaters Friday, Feb. 25, with some night-before screenings in local movie houses like the Regal Edwards Brea East, the 110-minute movie will remind viewers of 1980s, John Hughes-directed teen romance-dramedies like “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink.”

Though director Paul Kaufman (“Christmas on the Vine”) is known more for his work on TV shows like “Rogue” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” he shared during an exclusive interview with The Accolade – his first and only one that he’s done with a high school publication/online news website as of Feb. 11 – that he wanted to film “Butter” as an ode to Hughes’ productions.

But unlike that director’s films, Kaufman has chosen to base his latest work on a 2012 young adult novel titled, Butter, written by Erin Jade Lange. 

The director remained faithful to the novel by including all of the major characters and plot points, only changing and omitting a few details, such as the name of the high school Butter attends (from Scottsdale to West Scottsdale High School in Arizona). The film’s casting is equally as excellent; the actors chosen for the roles truly make it seem like the characters jumped off the pages of the novel. 

However, the movie does skip over many of the scenes that establish Butter’s estranged relationship with his father, Frank (Brian Van Holt, “Deputy”), who largely ignores and looks down upon his son for his size. Such an exclusion misses the chance for the director to explore the dynamic between Butter and his father. 

Nevertheless, Kaufman has kept the premise of the novel intact: A junior named Marshall gets fed up with being bullied by his peers for his weight – a whopping 423 pounds – and creates a website in which he posts that one month later, he’s going to eat himself to death when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Day (he’ll get his last big meal ready on New Year’s Eve).

Like in the book, viewers learn of the origin of Marshall’s nickname through a flashback sequence. It’s the summer before Marshall’s first year of high school, and viewers see him make some off-handed, sarcastic remarks about a group of boys his age. Then later that day, the guys track him down, corner him and force him to eat an entire stick of plain butter.

Soon after his online post, Butter starts seeing hundreds of online comments reacting to his suicide pact on his website, www.buttersfinalmeal.com. He expects pity or general indifference from his classmates but instead feels incredibly surprised when his classmates rally around the spectacle and egg him on, even suggesting which foods he should consume in his final meal.

His rising popularity leading up to New Year’s Eve also catches the attention of Anna McGuinn (McKaley Miller, “Ma”), the school’s popular girl with whom he has been secretly flirting with through online chats under the guise of “JP,” who tells McGuinn that he attends a nearby private school.

Once the basic plot has been set, expect to see the teen dramedy tropes of the main characters interacting at house parties, going on a quest to get the popular girl for the protagonist and conducting some shenanigans among Butter’s new buddies, Trent Woods (Adain Bradley, “All About the Washingtons”) and Parker Johnson (Jack Griffo, “Oh, Mighty Ocean!”), before viewers find out what the main character will do on New Year’s Eve and whether he’ll end up going through with his online suicide pact.

Kaufman does a great job in casting several lesser-known actors to play the high schoolers in this film. In fact, this is Alex Kersting’s first leading role in a movie. The Las Vegas native, who in real life weighs 100 pounds less than Butter, wore a prosthetic suit to help him mirror the character’s body type, according to the movie’s press notes. 

Despite his lack of acting experience, Kersting skillfully portrays Butter’s emotional turmoil as well as his humorous side. Namely, the scene in which Butter visits his doctor to discuss his persistent struggles with weight loss and healthy eating highlights Kersting’s ability to convey his character’s insecurities and declining mental health, all the while making self-deprecating jokes. 

On the other hand, his amateur status becomes apparent in some of his interactions with McGuinn, whose refined acting clashes with that of Kersting. This disconnect causes their scenes to come across as awkward, making it difficult for the audience to root for their relationship.  

One big-name actress that audiences might notice in “Butter” is Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino (“American Crime Story”), who plays Butter’s mother, Marian. Sorvino’s portrayal of a concerned parent who feels conflicted between appeasing and disciplining her child allows the audience to better understand Butter’s predicament. With many emotional reckonings throughout the film, the actress displays her well-established acting chops and a deep vulnerability. 

Like with the teen flicks of the ‘80s, it’s clear that Kaufman has invested quite some time on the soundtrack; keep an ear out for songs by Canadian singer Betty Moon and the popular American a cappella group, Pentatonix, to help set the mood of the film.

Shot prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in a mere 18 days, the film was unofficially released for review and critique in 2020 — during which time it won certain film festival awards — however, it did not get its official release until this week because of quarantine-related theater closures. 

Rated PG-13 for mature themes and moderate profanity, “Butter” is distributed by Blue Fox Entertainment, known for its recently released PG-rated family film, “The Wolf and the Lion.”

With comedic and emotionally raw moments, “Butter” undoubtedly captures the audience’s attention and plays with viewers’ heartstrings. It is important to stress that this film includes many serious topics such as bullying, fatphobia and suicide – teen issues that Hughes rarely explored in his movies.

Viewers are urged to consider the trigger warnings prior to watching the movie.

Nevertheless, “Butter” deserves to be seen, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it becomes a precursor to a rebirth of the teen romantic-dramedy in the 2020s.

(GIVEAWAY: The first four students to show up to The Accolade room, Room 138, during lunch this week will have a chance to get a free “Butter” movie poster.)