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Close-ups of foliage and blossoms. A father watering flower beds as he teaches his young son the name and growing season of each plant. These sights and sounds accompany the opening credits of writer-director Thom Fitzgerald’s remarkable movie, The Hanging Garden, and announce its central metaphor. We soon meet an eccentric rural Nova Scotian family whose members bear botanical forenames. Like flowers, each has a distinctive shape and color, and blooms at a particular time, making the kin’s ramshackle waterside home more like a battlefield than a nursery.

Fitzgerald’s narrative begins with 25-year-old Sweet William (Chris Leavins), the adult incarnation of the boy in the credit sequence, returning to his dysfunctional family after a decade’s absence. His sister Rosemary (Kerry Fox) is marrying Fletcher (Joel S. Keller), a randy young man who figured in teenage William’s sexual awakening. Rosemary can barely stop smoking, drinking, and cursing long enough to take her vows. Her mother Iris (Seana McKenna) perseveres to see the ceremony and reception through to a successful conclusion; Iris’ husband Whisky Mac (Peter MacNeill) is, as usual, besotted. Violet (Christine Dunsworth), the kid sister William has never met, hurls apples at the wedding guests, acting tough to cloak her vulnerability. Grandmother Grace (Joan Orenstein), a religious fanatic in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, remains in her bedroom, howling at the nuptials from her upstairs window.

We observe William’s homecoming through his anxious eyes. Intermittent flashbacks sketch in his troubled past: A slim, carefree child until adolescence, unhappy William becomes immensely fat trying to conceal his homosexual impulses, thus removing himself from sports, fighting, girls, and other teenage male pursuits. After Grace catches him in a compromising situation with Fletcher, Iris hires Dusty Miller (Martha Irving), a down-on-her-luck neighborhood woman, to “make a man of him.” His feelings and desires thwarted at every turn, William hangs himself from a tree in the garden. After a miraculous rescue, he runs away, returning 10 years later as a svelte, uncloseted, reasonably stable man.

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Fitzgerald has created a movie with a look and tone unlike any I can recall. He explains his strategies in a press-kit interview: “In my head I approached the film structurally, hoping to create both a slice-of-life drama and a surrealist fantasy. The structuralist elements, from the rigid use of color and line to the pervasive flower metaphor, suggest that even the most ordinary lives also operate on a poetic level. Depending on how you look at them, these characters live in the past, present, and future simultaneously. I think we all do.” The filmmaker’s most telling conflation of tenses occurs in scenes where William appears in more than one of his three manifestations—untroubled kid, despondent adolescent, reconstructed adult. This device deftly conveys the weight of the past on the present, especially in the sequence where grown-up William symbolically exorcises his ghosts by rescuing teenage William from a noose.

The Hanging Garden is the product of a vision so individualistic and assured that one would never suspect it was 29-year-old Fitzgerald’s feature debut. A New Yorker who emigrated to Nova Scotia a decade ago, he has worked extensively as a theater actor and directed several prize-winning short films. Temperamentally and stylistically, he views life from a slightly skewed angle. The Hanging Garden’s characters and themes—abuse, family trauma, repression, despair—couldn’t be more serious, yet Fitzgerald presents them with a disarmingly antic spin. His compositions tend to be claustrophobically intimate and asymmetrically framed, forcing us to see the world from a somewhat altered perspective. The filmmaker’s introduction of surreal touches, a risky gamble in an otherwise realistic saga, is surprisingly effective. The animated eyes of Grace’s beloved Virgin Mary statue register shock and horror at things they are forced to observe. When adolescent William hangs himself, the witnessing flowers in the garden, filmed in time-lapse photography and projected backwards, empathetically weep and wither. As described, this sounds like an overly precious conceit but, in Fitzgerald’s hands, it’s magically affecting.

The Hanging Garden is notable for the open-handed sympathy it extends to all of its characters. Sadistic, often reprehensible Whiskey Mac, the source of much of his family’s misery, is shown tenderly talking to his plants and urging them to grow, exhibiting a nurturing concern that he’s incapable of extending to his own flesh and blood. The long-suffering Iris, who harbors a guilty secret and gamely appears to accept the lousy hand life has dealt her, unexpectedly draws on hidden resources and liberates herself. Adult William may have recovered from his youthful torments, but in moments of stress he suffers bouts of asthma, indications that he has not escaped unscathed.

There isn’t a weak performance in the film’s ensemble cast. Leavins’ mature William is probably the trickiest role, the passive, reactive center around which more flamboyant characters revolve. Fox, the dynamic star of Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, invests the raucous, profane Rosemary with a secret core of strength and wisdom that emerges as the story unfolds. (Sarah Polley, the crippled school-bus accident survivor in The Sweet Hereafter, appears in flashbacks as teenage Rosemary.) Keller plays both the adolescent and adult Fletcher, physically and dramatically believable in both concupiscent incarnations. The most daring performance is unquestionably Troy Veinotte’s teenage William. This startlingly obese young man is uncommonly courageous, heedlessly throwing himself into erotic and intensely emotional scenes that would surely intimidate other 17-year-old acting novices.

The Hanging Garden has a deceptively spontaneous tone. Only in retrospect does one realize how carefully it is structured, particularly its bittersweet denouement. Adult William learns about a previously undisclosed blood tie and drives off, determined to forge a new, unconventional family. Fitzgerald’s camera then turns away from the future, burrows through a thick row of hedges, and returns to the idyllic opening garden scene, one of the rare contented interludes little William and his father shared.CP