Festivals

{BFI Flare} The Greenhouse – Review

“Seeing the past is a gift,” Ruth tells her daughter Beth in a crucial scene of The Greenhouse. But what happens when that cherished past isn’t safe to relive? A heartfelt but confusing take on the time-loop genre, this hybrid film packs an emotional punch but fails to compel with its lackluster, out-of-place supernatural core.

Written and directed by Thomas Wilson-White, the film follows protagonist Beth (Jane Watt) as she processes a recent trauma: the loss of one of her mothers, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton). That tragedy resulted in Beth having to step up for her entire family. Kicked off by a first act focusing on Beth, her selfish siblings, and widowed mother Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin), this Australian drama — screened at this year’s BFI Flare — soon morphs into something else.

Beth realizes she can physically explore the darkest corners of her grief. She is able to enter a suspended temporal dimension that revolves around the titular family greenhouse. Reliving her happiest and saddest memories feels comforting at first, but danger awaits. Beth realizes this at her own expense when her house starts to reveal the creaks beneath the picture-perfect surface.

The protagonist learns that dwelling in the past isn’t a viable option. As she struggles with her complicated feelings towards her mother and siblings, Beth also needs to right an old wrong. Years prior, she and her best friend Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) parted ways abruptly and cut their budding romance short. When Lauren comes back to town and wants to reconnect, it’s Beth’s cue to put herself first.

Processing One’s Trauma In The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse normalizes seeing LGBTQ+ families, introducing a refreshingly big, messy gang with two fierce mothers at the helm. No one is defined by their queerness, which is a blast of fresh air for a movie about non-straight characters. You’d think that someone should feel safe enough to explore their gender identity and/or sexual orientation in such an open, welcoming environment. This wasn’t the case for Beth. As a teenager, she pushed Lauren away out of a sense of duty to her dying mother. When asked for explanations, she faked internalized homophobia, which was difficult to believe for everyone involved.

Wilson-White’s movie would’ve benefited from affording the love story between Beth and Lauren more screen time. The Greenhouse sidelines this element in the present in favor of a poorly executed time-loop narrative. The alternate dimension relies on blurry visual effects and a color grading turning sunny New South Wales into a windy, grey setting. In this familiar-yet-sinister environment, these sibling characters inhabit the space like the vampires from Twilight. It’s hard to unsee it, and it’s unlikely a conscious reference.

Beth’s healing unfolds slowly in between reality and an alternate plane of existence, reminding audiences of Happy Death Day 2U. The 2019 Blumhouse slasher dared combine sci-fi, horror, and trauma in an original formula. The Greenhouse, on the other hand, is so intent on portraying the banter between Beth and her siblings, it rarely finds some truth in these characters. When they enter the time-loop together, the viewer is barely invested enough to care about their fate. 

The Greenhouse’s Alternate Dimension Lacks Cohesion

The idea of the family house as a haunted vessel retaining Beth’s and Ruth’s grief is interesting. Sadly, it isn’t vastly explored in the present-time reality, relegating that grief to the alternate dimension. It doesn’t help The Greenhouse’s case that its time-loop is a no man’s land where narrative cohesion is thrown out of the window. In the loop, Beth is able to share a touching moment with her late mother, but can also be attacked by her loved ones’ evil doppelgängers at any given moment. She can enter the loop by walking through a fog bank but exits via a car trunk? 

There’s little resolution in the final family reunion, and the ending suggests time-traveling might not be over for Beth. By this point, however, you’re not sure you’d like to see more. There are some promising seedlings in Wilson-White’s Greenhouse — and Watt’s strong performance is definitely one — but the director chooses to bet on the weakest plants, ending up spoiling the entire lot.

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