The hallmarks of Gen-X ennui infest this oddly impressive debut feature from Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (the screenwriters behind the clever Final Destination 2). Heroism is at work here, but it's clouded by much sadness and paranoia. Clearly these two saw The Dead Zone (a gem from Cronenberg's peak) at an impressionable age.
Twentyish Evan (marketable funny fellow Ashton Kutcher, playing straight) is something of a nut case. We first catch him in the act of ransacking someone's office; he's hotly pursued and desperate for evidence of something. Then we flash back to his childhood (he's convincingly played by Logan Lerman at seven and John Patrick Amedori at thirteen), and for about half an hour, we get a dose of Evan's rotten youth, his broken home, his looped friends, his institutionalized father (Callum Keith Rennie) and his disturbing blackouts. A friendly doctor advises Evan's doting mother (Melora Walters) to make the boy record every significant event of his turbulent life in journals, the better to comprehend and survive it. Evan does, to his later peril.
Braying alterna-rock kicks in to inform us that it's Hipster College Time, but even as a cocky psych major ("Was it Pavlov that conditioned his dog to lick his nuts?"), Evan is still screwed up. He's had no blackouts for seven years, but childhood scars remain. And in the story's strangest supernatural twist, he learns to reassume his youthful dimensions, literally, by reading from his meticulously preserved journals. When grown-up Evan revisits his childhood blackouts, he radically (dude!) alters the shape of his present. (The movie takes its title from the chaos-theory premise that the smallest catalyst can cause calamitous ripples -- that "butterfly flaps wings here, causes typhoon there" theory.)
There's some really good material in The Butterfly Effect, and it's fair to praise Kutcher (in his dramatic debut) as well as Amy Smart, who plays Kayleigh, the "grown-up" version of his childhood sweetheart. Each time Evan messes with the past, he creates a new scenario for himself and a new path for Kayleigh, who becomes, variously, a hard-luck waitress, a sorority bimbo and a ruined junkie prostitute. Smart is splendid in her transformations, even when she and Kutcher get bogged down by the sometimes heavy-handed direction. Still, much can be forgiven. As a thriller, The Butterfly Effect is iffy and uneven, but as a portrait of a people, it's effective and intriguing.