Small scale sci-fi that mostly plays to its strengths in this emotional, delayed coming-of-age story.
Synopsis: Grieving the death of her mother Lillian, Beth Tweedy-Bell wakes one night to find a portal to the past in the forest surrounding her family home. Swept away by visions of her idyllic upbringing with her three siblings and two loving Mums, Beth becomes mesmerized by the past, unable to see the dangers that lie ahead.
Beth Tweedy-Bell (Jane Watt) is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton). Along with Beth, Lillian has left behind her wife Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin) and their other adoptive children, Drew (Shiv Palekar), Doonie (Kirsty Marillier) and Raf (Joel Horwood). Beth, having stayed behind to help take care of Lillian is more deeply involved in her grief, with those feelings enhanced by her staying at the home while her siblings have continued to make their own lives. One day, she finds a greenhouse and finds that walking through it allows her to revisit her past.
The film begins with a buoyant dinner scene, introducing the family’s mostly good-natured grilling about relationships and togetherness. This scene is a family we only see in this moment, as later scenes reveal the boundaries and rising tensions between them. Each character is given their own (sometimes relatively small) concerns and while this helps to make it feel a little more fleshed out, the stories can’t be given enough time to fully flourish. For example, a topic like Doonie’s widely mocked television show is made prominent enough to represent part of the narrative for her, but there is little background to it, so ends up feeling slightly more hollow than it needs to be. They do function well in terms of showing the fracturing nature of the family and Beth’s more static life.
The flashbacks that Beth visits are balanced between rosy nostalgia and painful memories. When the film returns to the opening dinner scene there is something breathtakingly emotional about watching Beth crouch near Lillian – a truly beautiful moment of her studying her facial expressions and listening intently. This is science fiction on a relatively small-scale and the design of these flashbacks is key to this. Scenes play out with Beth standing as an observer and as is the case in many science-fiction films, interaction with the past is to be avoided. This further enhances the sense of sadness involved in the memories – they are re-experienced but can’t be completely relived. The moments where the film seeks to expand that scale are not quite as well observed and some of the internal logic did not quite work for me, even after some reflection. Still, The Greenhouse for the most part knows that its success lies in the interpersonal relationships and exploration of loss, rather than trying to make its world too large. There is a voyeurism to some of the past scenes, but director Thomas Wilson-White turns this into a more comfortable intimacy, rather than an intrusion.
Jane Watt plays Beth with great sensitivity in a quiet performance that does everything to portray how deeply Beth takes on every comment or event. She processes everything intensely and this need to over analyse keeps her static far more than any tie to family or the house. Despite the film’s championing of multiple gay (or bi in Drew’s case) identities, Beth is unable to embrace her own sexuality, largely due to what she has seen Ruth and Lillian go through as her mothers. Even though there are characters you would like to know more about, the performances are good to carry this through so you still feel some connection to them. The thread that runs through the film, of Beth becoming lost to her past rather than moving forward is an effective one. Ruth’s arc as the grieving widow is also under explored, meaning a later development lacks the impact it should. The moment also lacks some clarity, again dulling the impact while you pause to figure out the implications.
As a genre piece, it hits its mark well, burying hints as the narrative progresses and although any more horrifying elements are relatively gentle, there are still jolting moments and a well-earned sense of atmosphere. This is not a horror film, as such, although there are moments where the film seeks to enhance that sense of fear and uncertainty that work well. The effects, although sparingly applied are good quality and suit the scale, neither underplaying the strangeness, nor throwing itself into an entirely different world and overplaying its genre hand.
While some of the science-fiction elements are muted and perhaps not as well rounded as they could be, The Greenhouse is a moving and sensitive exploration of grief, family and embracing your own identity.
The Greenhouse plays as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Film Festival. More details and ticket information are available here.