Premiering at BFI Flare is Australian director Thomas Wilson-White’s melancholic The Greenhouse, which features a hugely emotional exploration of grief through an impressively original magical realism. Haunting yet quietly poignant, this daring debut spotlights the need to let go of the ghosts of our past in order to move on with the present, and will sit with you long after the credits roll.
While still grieving the loss of her mother Lillian, Beth (Jane Watt) welcomes the return of her three younger sibling’s to the family home for a celebration. On the eve of her mother Ruth’s (Camilla Ah Kin) sixtieth birthday, Beth discovers a magical portal to the past through the greenhouse and quickly spends more and more time exploring the bittersweet memories of the past. However the pull of spending more time with her mum while she was still alive, along with revisiting the blossoming romance with her best friend, Beth becomes blinded to the dangers of the all-too consuming magical place.
Wilson-White’s family drama initially unfolds as a wistful and melancholic examination of grief and regret, with the reunion of the siblings at their childhood home proving the catalyst for Beth to realise she’s been unable to move on from the past. She’s the typical older sibling who’s looked after everyone else but neglected her own wellbeing, with a certain underlying resentment for the other siblings who have moved on with their lives. However the initial excitement of the reunion quickly descends into a hurtful scrappiness as emotions come to a head and Beth’s buried sexuality is hurtfully outed to the rest of the family.
The introduction of the portal is surprisingly understated, with Wilson-White using the allusion of a distinct haziness and fog, reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Mist, as a bridge to the past. This is a great representation of the transformative powers and pull of memories which we can so easily get swept up in, especially in Ruth’s intensions to reside their permanently. Used primarily as an exploration of Beth’s regrets around her hidden sexual identity, there’s an intriguing sense of horror lingering in the haziness. As the siblings seek to rescue their mother, their shared memories turn more sinister, culminating in a tense action sequence.
Where the film truly shines however is in the recognisable family dynamic which feels hugely authentic thanks to the strong performances of the ensemble cast. There’s an impressive effortlessness and charming nature to their bickering chemistry which really helps to root the drama. Wilson-White also cleverly interweaves sexuality and representation throughout the film, with a quickly established acceptance in the family, which did make me question why Ruth hid her feelings from the family. Watt is the standout here, as she brings a real depth and nuance to the role, navigating between hurt, regret and longing for happier times.
The Greenhouse is an ambitious and deeply personal exploration of grief, family dynamics and the difficulties of accepting one’s true self. It’s clear to see there’s plenty of heart and experience poured into the film, and the strong connection between the cast lovingly bring the poignant tale to life. If anything, I would have loved to delve more into the fantastical elements, but appreciate the grounded realism approach.