Canadian writer-director Thom Fitzgerald has cultivated the lovely, elegiac The Hanging Garden from the most unlikely seeds: a violent, bawdy, profane and text book dysfunctional family.
When Sweet William (Chris Leavins) returns to his Nova Scotia home after a long absence, he's literally a new man. Now comfortably and openly gay, the svelte Sweet William seems nothing like the introverted, self-conscious, 350-pound teenager his family remembers. His new appearance threatens to upstage the main event, the wedding of his sister Rosemary (Kerry Fox) to Fletcher (Joel S. Keller), who as a teen happened to provide Sweet William's first sexual encounter.
If this weren't enough, Sweet William finds his parents, Whiskey Mac (Peter MacNeill) and Iris (Seana McKenna), still locked in a pitched battle fueled by alcohol and resentment. This makes the presence of Violet (Christine Dunsworth) -- a sister he's never met, who's reluctant to acknowledge her gender -- all the more surprising.
During the course of his stay, Sweet William is forced to confront his own painful adolescence, whose defining moment was a despondent suicide attempt: He hung himself from an apple tree branch in their garden. Here Fitzgerald adds an inspired, surreal twist to the seemingly run-of-the-mill, you-can't-go-home-again story.
Through well-placed flashbacks, which detail his Catholic family's misguided and devastating attempts to "set him straight," as well as dealing with contemporary events that still echo his adolescent anguish, Sweet William shows himself to be a particularly hardy breed of late bloomer.
Opposites grow side by side quite happily in Thom Fitzgerald's garden: compassionate performances, mordant black humor, forthright sexual desire, nagging regret, inexplicable hopefulness. While they may appear to be merely clever hybrids of Todd Haynes and Tennessee Williams, the tender buds in The Hanging Garden possess their own distinctive beauty.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.