What The Film Fest 2018 Review: GREEN HOUSE

How unlikeable can a protagonist get?

The What The Film Fest - an annual, weekend-long celebration of outsider cinema hosted by Toronto's Laser Blast Film Society - has two options on its audience-award voting ballots. On any given film, you can say you “Loved It,” or declare it “Too Weird.” Thus, the festival ends up with two awards: Best in Fest, which this year went to Mangoshake (reviewed here), and Weirdest in Fest. The latter honour went to Armando Lamberti's Green House.

Green House's first half-hour plays out as a kind of paranoid thriller. It centres on grad student Joel (Brian May (not that one)), who comes home to discover his apartment has been burgled. That, in addition to the appearance of a mysterious man in black, sets off escalating anxiety in Joel, who can't even bring himself to eat his customary tofu-and-broccoli takeout at home anymore. Poor little lamb.

This segment of the film is pretty effective, utilising scenarios and sound design that evoke the mundane dread of Polanski or Lynch, but it doesn't last all that long. Joel's paranoia builds to the point where he can't remain in his apartment any longer, and must throw himself at the mercy of his family's hospitality - first his mother, then his sister.

It's at this juncture that Green House undergoes a significant change in tone and even in protagonist. Gradually, the movie starts focusing on Joel's family - which is for the best, as Joel's character slides into a state of utterly detestable immaturity (a state he probably also starts the movie in, though we don't notice until later). Joel is the worst entitled white boy I've seen in cinema in ages. He relies entirely upon the women around him, making them solve even his most minor dilemmas. He haggles over tips. Steals people's food. Sneers at attempts to help him become more self-sufficient. The unbearably unlikeable Joel is the worst thing in everyone's lives, and arguably the antagonist in his own story. We spend the rest of the movie just hoping he'll go away - and then, suddenly, he does, leaving us only with his family and their feelings towards him.

It's a really weird trajectory for the movie to take, but it's kind of compelling, once you realise what the movie's doing.

In a decision that made the film for me, but will break it for others, most of the cast of Green House is made up of non-actors. May's real-life mother plays Joel's mother, in one of film's more delightful performances; the rest of the cast appear to be non-actor friends of the key creatives. This decision doesn't create the kind of disarming realism you sometimes get from non-actors; on the contrary, Lamberti revels in his cast's stilted line readings and clunky characterisation. Some performances are wonderfully weird; one scene featuring nearly a dozen characters never seen elsewhere is uproariously funny. The flat deliveries, the awkward silences, the forced emotions, the sheer banality of it all - I'm not sure it's more effective than more conventional performances, but it's all we have, and boy it's weird.

What really gives me pause about Green House - and prompted me to vote it “Too Weird” - is not its bizarre story arc or its amateur performances, but its visual design and direction. Green House is styled as a Wes Anderson imitation in a way that, frankly, rankles me. It's not slick - the lighting and digital-16mm cinematography are as low-rent as the performances - but it bears a definite will to be considered artsy, all self-consciously symmetrical framing and quirky editing choices.

Perhaps it's my art-school background coming back to haunt me, but Green House frequently reminds me of student filmmakers imitating choices they like, without understanding the meaning behind those choices. In that sense, the style perfectly reflects its entitled white-boy protagonist; it’s the kind of movie an entitled white boy would make. Green House's style serves to heighten and draw attention to the clunkiness of its characters and actors, but it's unclear how much self-awareness lies behind it. Are the filmmakers using this style as part of their entitlement satire or because they just like it? It's unclear, but to my eyes, it's never used as a comment - just for affect.

Green House is a movie full of choices that will divide audiences. The three main hurdles - its unlikeable protagonist, the non-actor performances, the Anderson-lite style - are unlikely to score three for three with most people. For me, it’s two for three. Though it falls short of delivering the total weirdo package, Green House is a fascinating watch - especially for fans of DIY cinema. There's also a four-minute sequence of May eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So...go for it, PB&J fans.