The greenhouse is a magnificent film about mourning, and the attraction and grip of nostalgia. When Beth wakes up one night and walks through a greenhouse in the woods near her home, she finds herself in her own past, watching the moments she’s lived through. Like a Dickensian ghost, she can look at herself, her siblings, her mothers, but she cannot interact with them. It’s meditative, slow and bewitching. With excellent sound design and a smooth aesthetic, writer / director Thomas Wilson-Wright makes an impressive feature debut.
After losing her mother Lillian, Beth (Jane Watt) decides to stay in the family home to care for her other mother, Ruth (Camilla Ah Kim). Her three other siblings are all gone, far from their childhood home. They all return for a weekend to celebrate Ruth’s birthday, and it’s clear Lillian’s death has put a strain on the relationship between the siblings, especially with Beth.
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As each of the siblings grapple with the passing of Lillian (Rhondda Findleton), it appears Beth is not only grieving, but depressed as well. It’s not just that she sleeps late and eats ice cream with Ruth while watching Beth’s sister, Doonie (Kirstie Marillier) on TV; Beth is in mourning, deeply affected by the loss of her mother. Beth is also shaken after meeting her old friend Lauren.
The greenhouse, which is about a queer family – two women who raised four children – shows us Beth struggling with her own sexuality. She denied herself happiness and authenticity when she hid her relationship with her old friend Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), who was also her first love. Much to Beth’s surprise, her siblings were all aware of her relationship and allegedly encouraged her. Not only did they have gay parents, but one of Beth’s brothers is also gay, having brought her boyfriend home for the reunion.
While Beth grapples with her siblings in the present, she also escapes as often as she can in the past. Running to the greenhouse in the woods, she begins to enter more emotionally charged memories of herself and her siblings. When she sees Ruth doing the same, Ruth issues an ominous warning: it is dangerous to go into the past.
While The greenhouse is a family drama, it goes off the rails a bit in the third and final act. As the story turns towards a thriller, it gets weirder. It’s surprising, but not unwelcome. This sudden rise in tension and peril will be polarizing for viewers, who will either love the rapid change or find it too abrupt. This final act gives the impression that Beth realizes the urgency of her situation; she cannot live in the past, and she cannot continue to lie to herself.
The abstractions in this final act serve as a visual metaphor for a collapsing family. Just as Ruth warned Beth to be stuck in the past, The greenhouse warns against refusing ourselves and punishing ourselves with our pasts. These aren’t groundbreaking themes or whole new territory, but it’s Thomas Wilson-Wright’s vision that is refreshing. The greenhouse is ultimately a beautiful queer story, mixing a familiar tale of grief and loss with Beth’s own inner struggle and what it means to be a family.
The greenhouse, like movies like A ghost story, belongs more to the category of magical realism than to any other genre. Where magical realism lends itself wonderfully to literature, it can sometimes be too poetic to be well translated on screen. The greenhouse manages to balance this abstraction of its themes and visual symbolism with a strong story about a family working together through a major loss.
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