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Television

Review: In ‘Butterfly,’ gender identity is at the heart of Hulu’s new family drama

Episode 3
Callum Booth-Ford as Maxine Duffy in “Butterfly.”
(Ben Blackall / Hulu)
Television Critic

“Butterfly,” a British production premiering Friday on Hulu, is a thought-provoking, emotionally realistic issue drama on the subject of gender identity in young people — well, really, just one particular young person, 12-year-old Max Duffy (Callum Booth-Ford) from Manchester, who would like to be known as Maxine.

There is strife ahead, to be sure, but this is not a dour, sentimental exercise in which the misunderstood subject comes to a sad end while the survivors rend their governments and excoriate themselves for never having listened, really listened, and then drive out to the country to dedicate a tree. Nor is it one in which complicated things are made to look simple. Change is possible, but not easy.

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Callum Booth-Ford, left, and Lola Ogunyemi in "Butterfly."
(Ben Blackall / Hulu)

Created by playwright-screenwriter Tony Marchant, who has a history with three-part miniseries like this (if not necessarily ones that have been seen here), “Butterfly” does take a side — it’s with the kid, of course — while giving itself the luxury of not being absolutely conclusive. The whole point of identity, after all, is that every case is different. This is just one family.

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When the story starts, we are in the middle of things; Maxine’s feelings are not new; she’s been wanting to wear girls’ clothes since age 5, though it’s all coming to a head as puberty approaches, along with a change in schools. The parents, Vicky (Anna Friel, deep and mighty) and Stephen (Emmett J Scanlan), have been separated for a while, a result of Stephen’s inability to come to terms with Maxine’s growing horror at her male parts and more explicitly formed wish to be female, and the couple’s difficulty finding common ground over it.

They blame each other, wonder if they’re to blame — not that blame is an appropriate response. They lie, or leave things out, or take major steps without consulting each other, though we understand that both are well-meaning. More than one says something along the lines of, “I’m doing what I can,” and that is always true.

Episode 3
Stephen Duffy (Emmett J Scanlan) embraces daughter Lily (Millie Gibson) in a scene from the Hulu miniseries "Butterfly."
(Ben Blackall / Hulu)

Stephen wants to believe that “Max” is going through a phase, hopes that puberty will knock the girl right out of “him” and believes that getting the family back together is key to the whole thing:

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“A happier boy wouldn’t want to be a girl now, would he?” the father asks.

Vicky, who has given Maxine room to express herself at home, is stricter with her child in public; Vicky’s at the center of the story in many ways, saying yes or no at crucial moments, making large choices. And daughter Lily (Millie Gibson), who encourages Maxine to dress as a girl at school, mixes love for her sibling with her own inchoate agenda, as if this is a drama she needs and needs to be part of.

Maxine, though at times perceptive (too perceptive, maybe), is also acting out of confusion, in order to please or manipulate her parents, without understanding that she’s doing either. Some of what she does is designed to get her father back into their house. Wanting them to be “a normal family again,” Maxine gives a cold shoulder to Stephen’s new girlfriend (Amy Huberman, sympathetic, not the usual interloping caricature) and sabotages Vicky’s long-in-coming return to dating. Maxine’s a special kid, but a kid all the same.

A few scenes do have the flavor of transcribed research, and Marchant is careful to lay out multiple points of view — every character is also a position. “What’s wrong with liking a bit of frill and a splash of color?” asks Stephen’s father (Sean McGinley), who thinks his child is “just gay,” while Vicky’s mother (Alison Steadman) sniffs at her grandchild’s “funny ways” and wonders why everyone has to be “different.” Out in the world, Maxine has some inevitable encounters — school bullies — and some less expected: a new schoolmate, who has an eating disorder, mistakes Maxine for a kindred spirit.

Many of the questions here are common, of course, to all sorts of parents and children — when does understanding turn into indulgence, how do you balance support and responsibility? “Butterfly” follows the Duffys as they meet with support groups, school officials, the mental health establishment and clinicians, who have different words for talking about Maxine, different suggestions about how or how not to proceed, and at what speed. Things grow murkier in a search for clarity.

This studious inclusiveness can make the drama seem a little schematic, if you’re in a mind to notice. But mostly you don’t, because the performances are engaged and engaging and the Duffys feel like a real family, even in their fragmented distress. There are enough moments of conflict and crisis and cliffhanging to keep a viewer in the moment and to keep “Butterfly” flying. But the reality of a middle-class family learning things they never expected they’d need to know is never violated.

‘Butterfly’

Where: Hulu

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When: Any time, starting Friday

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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