We all face loss in our lives and wish to relive happier times before such events, but living in the past isn’t always the best thing for us. This is the central theme writer and director Thomas Wilson-White explores in his Australian drama, The Greenhouse: an emotional story with a fantastical twist to keep audiences on their toes.
A cryptic first act follows Beth (Jane Watt) arranging some sort of gathering between her siblings and two mothers. Something seems to haunt Beth, especially so after the arrival of Lauren (Harriett Gordon-Anderson). Then, one night, she is called to the titular greenhouse, which happens to act as a portal to the past. The realm allows Beth to watch herself in the happier times when her family all lived under the same roof, and her friendship with Lauren was blossoming. The past naturally reveals the true nature behind why Beth is so troubled, but it’s also an intriguing narrative device that lets us inside Beth’s psyche.
The danger of staying inside the past is visually clear, with literal cracks forming in the family home. However, the film also subtly shows how these frequent visits affect Beth and those around her. Beth’s time in the past causes her to let others down and disconnect from those still in the present: she wakes up late, feels sluggish and distracted. Through Beth’s behaviour, The Greenhouse does a great job of illustrating what grief looks and feels like.
It’s surprising how the film works best in the quieter character moments for a plot centred around fantasy. The low-key production elements reflect the micro-story being told: the camerawork isn’t flashy, and the beautiful score is never over-bearing. A close up on a character’s face does so much to push the narrative forward here, and the fantasy elements are grounded to make the focus purely on the cast. It’s a film reliant on its screenplay and performances, and thankfully both are up to the task. The Greenhouse hits its stride throughout the second act; with the mystery out of the way, the characters are given the space to reveal their anxieties and begin to face their collective grief.
It’s the third act where the film stumbles slightly. The scope ratchets up towards the end, but it feels unnecessary given how well The Greenhouse works with its smaller, more focused narrative. There’s a brief set-piece within the climax that leans heavily into the science-fantasy genre; although the film casually toys with this genre throughout, the moment seems out of place. Although there are still some tender character moments to be had, the finale would be so much more impactful without genre tropes creeping in.
Another note worth mentioning is the LGBTQ+ representation present in The Greenhouse. It’s always a delight to see queer characters in genre films, but it feels especially great in this feature because not a single character is there purely for their sexuality. Sexuality isn’t really explored because that isn’t the story being told; instead, the characters are allowed to be queer within a narrative about family and grief. There is always room for stories on screen that directly tackle themes of queerness and sexuality, but we need more dramatic genre films covering universal themes that just so happen to feature a queer cast.
Wilson-White has crafted a tender and heart-wrenching story that visualises those painful periods of grief and depression. The otherworldly premise he creates keeps things interesting and is imperative to the narrative and character arcs, but the story works well enough on its own as an emotional drama. Bolstered by strong performances and a commitment to keeping things small, The Greenhouse is well worth your time.
Dir: Thomas Wilson-White
Scr: Thomas Wilson-White
Prd: Lizzie Cater, Jemma Douglas, David Gilbery, Spencer McLaren, Marlon Vogelgesang
Cast: Jane Watt, Rhondda Findleton, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Camilla Ah Kin, Joel Horwood, Kirsty Marillier, Shiv Palekar
Runtime: 97 minutes
The Greenhouse will screen as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Festival on March 17th 2021.