Fantasia Festival Review: Glasshouse

Year: 2021
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Kelsey Egan
Writer: Emma De Wet, Kelsey Egan

Cast: Jessica Alexander, Adrienne Pearce, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen

By Harris Dang

Set in the not-too-distant dystopian future, “Glasshouse” (2021) tells the story of a family living in – you guessed it! – a glasshouse. The titular structure is set to protect the family from a toxin known as the “Shred” that poisons the air. Once the toxin is inhaled, it is said that it causes the victim to degrade into a state of dementia.

 The matriarch only known as Mother (Adrienne Pierce) tends for her three daughters; the outgoing Bee (Jessica Alexander), the guarded Evie (Anja Taljaard) and the precocious Daisy (Kitty Harris) and her lone son Gabe, (Brent Vermeulen) who requires constant care after extensive contact with the Shred. They all adhere to strict rules including harvesting crops, patrolling the perimeter and of course, never letting intruders inside. Until one day, Bee lets in an injured man (Hilton Pelser) and the intricate routine and family relationships are put to the test, bringing up memories and emotions that have long been repressed.

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From the synopsis, the story does bring up similarities of the 1971 Don Siegel film “The Beguiled”, which was remade into a 2017 film by Sofia Coppola. Thankfully, writer/director Kelsey Egan and co-writer Emma Lungiswa De Wet have plenty of tricks up their sleeve to make “Glasshouse” more than just a homage to Southern Gothic storytelling.

The great thing about “Glasshouse” is how Egan and De Wet manage to blur the line between blissful ignorance and selective memory as the characters all have emotional baggage involving self-discovery and past traumas that surface after the arrival of the stranger. The nature of the toxin makes characters act in ways that it becomes difficult to grasp whether they are being sincere or suspicious – whether they choose to forget or they do not actually remember — which draws plenty of tension.

Even with the low budget, the work behind the camera is startlingly well-done. The titular set design by Kerry Van Lillienfeld looks fantastic and the costume design by Catherine McIntosh captures the Southern Gothic look as well as inspiration from beekeeping uniforms; bringing light to the family structure. Egan really captures the claustrophobia of the setting, making it look as if the audience were peering through a snow-globe.

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The cinematography by Justus de Jager lends credence to the murky nature of the story; making the mise-en-scene feel serene in its peaceful nature and eventually relying on hand-held when the story becomes more tumultuous. The editing by Rowan Jackson compliments the nature as well and it is engagingly intricate as it cross-cuts moments of lucidity as characters try to piece together moments of their past along with their treasured keepsakes.

The cast certainly hold up on their end with measured performances that speak volumes beyond their archetypal roles. Alexander balances both naivety and rebellion in her work that proves to be alluring and compelling while Pierce brings conviction to the role of Mother by lending a presence that is both nurturing and strangely eerie, especially in the way she tells bedtime stories and fairy tales.

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Pelser brings striking charisma that makes him dangerously magnetic and even oddly empathetic once his intentions are revealed while Vermeulen is good as the dementia-laden Gabe. Harris rises above expectations of child roles makes the character of Kitty believable, especially when she has the same playfulness of Bee alongside her own optimism. The standout however is Taljaard. Considering that Evie is emotionally guarded and has desires of her own, Taljaard does a great job in conveying that with nuance and gravitas.

As for the film’s flaws alongside the familiarity of the story (which makes some of the storytelling quite predictable), there will be some audiences that will question the portrayal of dementia — particularly in the case of the characters using restraints – that may leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Overall, “Glasshouse” succeeds as an immersive, eerie chamber piece, a coming-of-age drama and a sci-fi fantasy that becomes more than the sum of its parts thanks to its strong visual style, good performances and its assured hand in escalating tension. Recommended.

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“Glasshouse” will be making its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.

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