The Greenhouse – BFI Flare 2021

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Thomas Wilson-White

Imagine having a window into the past, the chance to go back and relive some of your best and worst memories, to see lost loved ones and understand the past from a new perspective. For Beth, the central character in Thomas Wilson-White’s low-key Australian family drama The Greenhouse, she gets that chance, suddenly discovering a portal to an earlier age where scenes from her teenage years replay on a loop.

Showing in BFI Flare 2021, Wilson-White’s film is about grief and the story of a close-knit family of grown-up children still processing the death of their mother Lilian several years before. Into this quiet movie, Wilson-White inserts this strange science-fiction element using the titular greenhouse as a way to travel between worlds which only Beth and her remaining parent Ruth can access.

It is a slightly bonkers concept as Beth moves between realities that she doesn’t seem able to control and scenes start to blend into one another. Seen primarily from her point of view, Beth’s ventures into the past sometimes dissolve into the modern day leaving the audience to occasionally wonder which reality we are in and why this particular set of scenes appear at random rather than those from earlier childhood.

Big questions also hang over Beth’s mental health and the more time she spends in the past, the greater her resentment becomes, changing Beth’s personality and creating conflict with her siblings about the sacrifices she has made to support Ruth. The family connection is more convincing than the window into the past and by interpreting the physical structure of the greenhouse so literally Wilson-White shuts down more ambiguous opportunities to explore the reality of Beth’s experiences and the possibility that these visions are projections of her grief and guilt.

Wilson-White also gives Beth a poorly explored same-sex relationship meant to signify a seismic shift in her attitude to family and home but presented so briefly in the past that it is difficult to equate this with the love of her life sacrifice the film intends. However, the presentation of Lillian and Ruth’s very normal and caring marriage along with the loving family of four children is one of The Greenhouse’s most positive elements.

Jane Watt gives an impressive performance as Beth, the film’s emotional heart whose feelings of loss dominate the film which Watt makes sympathetic and believable. An expressive performance, Beth’s feeling of being left behind, of sacrificing her sexuality to family concerns and the fear of the future are convincingly portrayed. Joel Horwood as Raf, Kirsty Marillier as Doonie and Shiv Palekar as Drew make less of an impression individually but along with Rhondda Findleton as Lillian and Camilla Ah Kin as Ruth, convince as a family.

As the siblings team-up in the final third, The Greenhouse starts to overreach itself unable to quite balance this odd dimension-jumping story with each characters’ emotional link to the past, their various conflicts and the disruption their presence across timelines starts to cause. At this point The Greenhouse starts to lose any sense of what it is trying to say, whether that is about family secrets, blood ties or the complex nature of grief.

 BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021

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