'Butter' Churns a Political Fable Out of Race, Age and Iowa Butter Sculptors

A new comedy starring Jennifer Garner as a butter-sculpting queen is all good fun, but raises serious, slippery political points.

Jennifer Garner and Yara Shahidi talk in front of a butter sculpture and Ty Burrell in the new film Butter

The favorite to win Iowa's butter carving crown (Jennifer Garner) addresses her much younger competition (Yara Shahidi) in the new comedy Butter. (Photo: Courtesy of Radius/TWC)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

When Butter premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Harvey Weinstein, the head of the film’s distributor, invited Michele Bachmann to cohost the Butter premiere in Des Moines, Iowa, the city where the film is set.

At the time, Bachmann had been in Iowa campaigning for the Republican nomination for president. Bachmann never responded to Weinstein’s offer, but the dare highlighted the political context of the lighthearted satire (which opens in theaters and on video-on-demand this week).

Butter’s lead character, Destiny, is a young African-American butter-carving prodigy (played by Yara Shahidi). Destiny finds greater scrutiny of her abilities when she goes up against the entrenched power of the wife (Jennifer Garner) of a beloved butter-sculpting champion (Ty Burrell) after he decides to abstain from the Iowa state contest for the first time in 15 years.

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The scenario, when looked at closely, bears striking similarities to the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries when a certain former First Lady entered the race as a favorite only to be upstaged by an energetic one-term senator from Illinois. Still, the film’s screenwriter, Jason Micallef, insists Butter can be enjoyed even without that allusion. 

“We feel that people that are interested in [the political context] will pick it up and people that are not are just going to have a great time and a fun, outrageous comedy,” Micallef tells TakePart.

However, when Micallef began to think about a subject that “was quite ridiculous on the surface, but then when you got into the world, you realized that people take it very seriously,” he made the connection between one of the Iowa state fair’s favorite activities and the caucuses that occur every four years in the next tent over.

“What’s been a little bit scary since we made the movie is how less far-fetched some of the stories and the actions of the characters seem.”

While it’s not mandatory to connect the dots between the butter competition and the real-life Obama and Clinton campaigns to appreciate the film, the film speaks to a perceived futility in modern politics and the difficulty of achieving change, either in terms of legislation or the political players we elect.

“Each of these characters is carrying a particular philosophy; so I have a feeling that you’re going to be able to watch this movie in 10 years, and it will apply to a specific person in 10 years that none of us now even knows about,” says Micallef.

Indeed, Bachmann, the object of Weinstein’s challenge, has ceded the spotlight to others who carry forward her point of view.

But the film’s director, Jim Field Smith, believes one thing has already changed, making the film’s satire even more pointed than it was when Micallef first wrote it.

“What’s been a little bit scary since we made the movie is how less far-fetched some of the stories and the actions of the characters seem,” the British filmmaker says, alluding to the lunatic behind-the-scenes machinations that go on between the two competitors in the film. “Politics has gotten to an extraordinary gladiatorial space right now. That’s true back home for me in England as much as it is in the U.S. The movie had a prescience to it in how the right versus left divide has become more and more extreme and polarized.”

While Butter ultimately has as no more of an answer for unity than our candidates seem to at the moment, it aims to bring both sides of the aisle together with laughs.

Do you have any favorite movies about politics? Leave screening suggestions in COMMENTS.

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