BFI Flare Festival 2021: The Greenhouse

The second film on my itinerary for this year’s festival was Thomas Wilson-White’s drama The Greenhouse. Set in an idyllic Australian suburb, the film follows Beth (Jane Watt) who is grieving the loss of her mother, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton). The eldest of four siblings who have gone on to achieve amazing things in their lives, Beth feels anchored to her life at home with her other mum, Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin). When her siblings arrive for a family celebration, Beth gets a lot more than she bargained for as she comes across an old flame, Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) and discovers a portal to the past in the family greenhouse. Being able to relive her past and see her family during the good times and the bad as well as her own exploration and inner conflict with her own sexuality allows Beth to accept all that has happened and decide what to do in the next chapter of her life.

Wilson-White’s direction is beautiful, often feeling otherworldly while remaining grounded in its reality. The suburban setting allows the household to feel disconnected from society and places the family front and centre of the events that take place. The screenplay is simple and has a slower pace to allow the plot to naturally unfold. When time travel is involved in a film, it can be easy to burden the audience with exposition and too much information but Wilson-White does not fall into this trap. How and why the portal is there is not important and this allows Beth’s character to be the main focus of the film. The way that these scenes are shot are really well done and allows Beth to come face to face with her past self and her actions. We begin to understand her decisions and choices that has led her to remain at home.

Jess Watt’s performance as Beth is the beating heart of this film. Beth is clearly a strong woman but she is holding herself back because she is afraid of going out in the world and living with complete freedom. Having seen the discrimination aimed against her mums, she is afraid when she begins to realise she has feelings for her best friend, Lauren. Where her siblings have been getting on with their lives, it feels that Beth has become stunted and unable to move on, which is also accompanied by the grief she feels over the loss of her mother. Watt’s performance is perfectly controlled and we feel that wide spectrum of emotion that Beth goes through as she is faced with the heartbreak of losing her mum and the jealousy that she has against her siblings for leaving. When among her siblings, Beth still revels in her loneliness as she doesn’t want to face the truth about her sexual orientation. The reintroduction of Lauren into her life is the perfect second chance given to Beth to start anew and we feel that conflict though Watt’s performance.

The music by Freya Berkhout is astounding and elevates the film into magic realism territory. Bringing in elements of otherworldly tones, Berkhout’s use of choral pieces is both haunting and beautiful, creating an atmosphere that helps to separate the house from the rest of the world. Having the music set the fantastical tone allows the film itself to remain a drama and not become distracted with a variety of special effects. Working brilliantly with Wilson-White’s vision, the music is subdued and subtle yet still makes its impact.

Overall, The Greenhouse is a beautiful and poignant film that quietly packs a punch. Wilson-White’s mixing of genres and tones reflects the protagonist’s inner conflict. This film tackles a range of heavy subjects but it does so in a way that isn’t overwhelming for the audience. Bringing in elements of time travel could have resulted in disaster but the way it works in this film allows us to understand Beth’s character more and learn about her background and how they have affected her in the present whilst also affecting her future choices.

The Greenhouse is playing at this year’s BFI Flare Festival.

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