Based on a Jason Micallef script that created a stir in the film industry when it started circulating four years ago, Butter, which opens Friday, has the kind of subtle humor that's likely to connect with the same audience that gravitated toward indie hits such as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.
The rather flimsy plot is loosely this: for the past 15 years, Bob Pickler (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) has entered (and won) a butter sculpture contest hosted in his small Iowa hometown. But when he is forced into retirement, his snooty wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) decides to pick up the slack and compete to keep the family name attached to the trophy. Bob has made some pretty amazing sculptures over the years, and topping his work will be no easy task. But Laura is overly confident and assumes she'll win just because she always wins at everything. And, as it turns out, she can actually carve a pretty mean chuck of butter.
Of course, the plot is more complicated than that. While Laura thinks she'll easily win, she has to compete with Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a young African-American girl who was just adopted by a naïve young white couple (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) who instill plenty of confidence in their adopted daughter and tells her she can do anything she wants if she tries hard enough. Destiny receives support from Brooke (Olivia Wilde), the town stripper/prostitute, who has it in for Bob after he stiffed her on the $600 he was supposed to pay her for a quickie in his car.
The initial competition provides to be tougher than Laura intended, and when Destiny makes a sculpture that reflects African-American history and the freeing of the slaves by Abraham Lincoln, she creates a situation where the judges can't possibly vote against her. Not to be outdone, Laura accuses her of cheating and sets up a rematch on an even bigger stage — the county fair. Of course, the grudge match becomes the talk of the town, and radio show hosts and TV reporters can't stop hyping the event.
More than one reviewer has noted a similarity between Butter, which is directed by Jim Field Smith (She's Out of My League), and Alexander Payne's Election. Both movies are wicked satires, and Garner's Laura Pickler, who speaks with an accent that'll make you think of former Vice President nominee Sarah Palin, has some of the same qualities as Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick. Manipulative and supremely unlikeable, Laura is a real villain, something that becomes clear after she recruits the town's unscrupulous local car dealer (Hugh Jackman) to help her in her attempt to defeat Destiny.
Though the film's pat ending takes some of the bite out of the proceedings, the movie is so well acted, that's hardly a detriment. Garner continues to show her range and brings so much subtlety to her character, you can see why Laura Pickler might be mistaken for a politician who just doesn't know her limitations. Wilde is appropriately over-the-top as Brooke, a trash-talking slut who rides around town on an old BMX bike, and Shahidi shines as the film's one character with a real heart. The film probably doesn't have a big enough marketing push to turn steamroll into something like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, but that's no reason to write it off.