Musings on grief are given a supernatural edge in contemplative Aussie drama The Greenhouse
Living in an isolated house with her mother Ruth, Beth has struggled to move on since the death of her other mum Lillian some years previously. One night she wakes from an odd dream and walks out into the woods to find a large greenhouse that had never been there before. When Beth enters the greenhouse she finds herself cast into the past and able to watch from the shadows as slices from her idyllic childhood play out before her. Unable to tear herself away from memories in which Lillian is still alive, Beth starts to spend more and more time in the greenhouse, even as it’s effects become increasingly sinister and start to bleed into her everyday life.
The Greenhouse is the debut feature from Australian writer/director Thomas Wilson-White and it’s non-traditional family structure and the diverse range of sexualities within it are based heavily on his own experiences growing up. It stars Jane Watt as Beth and Rhondda Findleton and Camilla Ah Kin as ”the mums” Lillian and Ruth. The family is rounded out by Beth’s three adopted siblings Drew, Doonie and Raf (Shiv Palekar, Kirsty Marillier and Joel Horwood) with the impetus of the story being all four siblings reuniting at the family home for Ruth’s 60th birthday.
It’s a desperately sad portrayal of grief and how it can destroy the close bonds of family. Whilst Drew, Doonie and Raf have all moved to the city and seemingly moved on with new jobs, partners and lives, Beth has remained stuck at home. Tired, angry and resentful, she is mired in the regret of things left unsaid to her parents and a romantic relationship with her best friend Lauren that she was too afraid to embrace. Despite the passing of several years Ruth remains utterly lost, using her birthday to give a devastating speech about how empty her life is without her partner. It’s against this backdrop that The Greenhouse asks it’s characters and it’s audience: would you go back if you could? If you did go back, how would you ever find the strength to leave?
It’s a curious film with Wilson-White for the most part boldly deciding to show rather than tell. Reminiscent of Michel Gondry and Richard Linklater’s offerings on sleep and memory, the rules of the greenhouse and it’s world are never really explained and it remains shrouded in foggy cloud throughout. But just when you might start to convince yourself that it is simply an imagination of a mentally strained young woman, The Greenhouse’s third act swings firmly in the direction of sci fi or supernatural thriller as the events happening within get increasingly disturbing and violent.
Queer narratives have for so long been absent from genre films so it is thrilling to find a filmmaker embracing true genre filmmaking rather than the more easily done family drama or coming out story. With what this film has achieved on a microbudget and very difficult filming conditions, it only begins to hint at the imaginative stories these filmmakers could bring us in the years to come.
With that said though, I did wish we could have dug a little deeper into that family drama. Beth is told that perhaps the greenhouse serves to ”force her to deal with the things she’s been hiding from” yet I am not sure those things are quite satisfyingly dealt with. She is a young woman who has grown up with two gay parents and a bisexual brother yet she is still afraid to come out to them and seemingly to herself. Whilst it’s a terrific traumatised performance from Jane Watt, her rich backstory could have used greater fleshing out than just the ”wrap up” epilogue we are given.
Ponderous and melancholy with a thrilling third act that is sure to wake up audiences, The Greenhouse is an incredibly refreshing take on grief and an exciting piece of representation within genre cinema. Whilst there may be some loose threads within the story, it casts a hypnotic spell that is very hard to shake.
The Greenhouse is playing as part of BFI Flare, the London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, between 17th – 28th March. You can buy tickets to stream it right here