Judge David Johnson was surprised and delighted by this first-time flick from Buffy and Angel make-up effects maestro Robert Hall.
Our review of Lightning Bug (Blu-ray), published January 23rd, 2013, is also available.
Sex, bugs, and rock 'n roll.
From the man behind the creature effects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel comes a saga of not fitting in. Lightning Bug is the sorta-biographical story of writer/director Robert Hall's journey from the Bible Belt to Hollywood, a story of a kid with a bizarre talent that doesn't quite click with his surroundings.
Facts of the Case
Green Graves (Bret Harrison, Grounded for Life) lives with his brother and his run-down mother (Ashley Laurence) in a beat-up trailer deep within Alabama. There, he nurtures his budding love of special effects make-up and horror films by dedicating countless hours to latex work and gore gag creation. He tempers this hobby by wiling away the days with his loser friends, and the nights catching lightning bugs.
His mom is married to a mean, abusive drunk named "Bone" (Kevin Gage). Far from a supportive father figure, Bone regularly berates Green for his interest in horror makeup. But it matters little to him; he knows what he wants—to get out and head to Hollywood where his talents will finally be appreciated.
He finds his first big chance when Halloween arrives. He is able to secure the job of creating the monster gags for the annual "Spook House," and seeing the opportunity to develop a portfolio, he throws himself into his work. Things start to look up, especially when he meets Angevin (Laura Prepon, That '70s Show) the hot, oddball video store worker.
As can be expected, though, his luck nosedives. Bone grows more dangerous; Angevin's over-protective mother meddles in the couple's relationship; local law enforcement, headed by a bastard deputy (Hal Sparks), goes out of its way to make Green's life hell; and the fundamentalist church is vigorously protesting the Spook House. With all this on his plate, Green must struggle to maintain his own sanity, while looking out for his family and continue nursing his dream, however unrealistic it may seem.
Robert Hall, for his first time behind the camera, has fashioned a terrific little coming-of-age film, which is only hamstrung by a few narrative missteps. But before I launch into "nitpicky reviewer" mode, let me take some time to laud this movie.
The joy of Lightning Bug comes from the way Hall moves from drama to comedy with the deft direction of a seasoned pro. There are funny, funny moments in this film (basically any scene with George Faughnan, who plays the super-hick Billy, is gold) as well as heart-crushingly moving scenes. What works so well, dramatically, emanates from the deep investment with the main character. Bret Harrison exudes an extreme likeability onscreen, and his soft-spoken portrayal of Green instantly bound me to the boy's fate. As a result, all the fan-hitting crap that befell the poor chump soundly resonated. Here's a character you unabashedly root for and when things go sour, you lament with. Outstanding work by Harrison.
What's interesting in this movie, is, as far as the other main characters, they were either victims or villains. Green's tired, weatherbeaten mother, his timid brother, even Angevin Duvet, are all menaced by other characters ("the most frightening monsters are all around us," proclaims the disc synopsis), in their cases Bone and Ms. Duvet, respectively. The contrasts are stark: The good guys are good (in mildly pathetic ways) and the bad guys are thoroughly bad…in fact, almost unbelievably bad. Bone lacked a single, decent molecule in his entire body, Ms. Duvet was a psycho, and the deputy, inexplicably, was as heartless as both of them. Hall began to lose me a little with these portrayals, as some of their actions later on in the film just seemed a bit too over-the-top.
Which leads me to the one main issue I have with Lightning Bug (beware of mild spoilers). Toward the end of the film, one of our villains does something very rotten, and Green takes action that indirectly leads to this person's demise. While it was certainly deserved, and seeing that comeuppance was relieving in a way, the whole sequence tarnished this great character that had been built up. Maybe it's a stretch. But in a canvas of all-around realistic character work, this blight stuck out.
The film was shot on location in Alabama, many of the milieus actual places from Hall's childhood. Lightning Bug really succeeds in capturing that gothic, deep South feel—so much so, the environment becomes a potent, living character itself.
But in his commentary track, Hall freely admits that his focus as director was on the acting, not so much the scene framing, and it shows. Solid performances all around, with honorable mentions going to Kevin Gage as an absolute douchebag Bone and Bob Penny, who plays one of the few likeable folks in the bunch, Mr. Tightwiler, the man who hires Green to decorate the Spook House. Even Laura Prepon is impressive, managing to shake any remnants of her television persona.
All in all, I would highly recommend Lightning Bug. It is a thoughtful, lovingly crafted, great-looking piece of independent filmmaking, and any drawbacks that I've mentioned are small in comparison to all the good stuff happening here.
Anchor Bay does this DVD justice. Stylish packaging gives way to top-shelf technical presentation. The picture is awesome, a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that teases out all the subtle colors and details of Alabama. Seriously, you wouldn't know this was a low-budget indie flick by looking at it. A strong Dolby Digital 5.1 mix accompanies, springing into action mainly when the great soundtrack activates. Hall has woven some great music into his film (including some old-school Suicidal Tendencies! Woo-hoo!) to flesh out the experience. The audio mix pushes it all well.
Finally, a very decent array of extras await you. There are two commentary tracks, one with just Robert Hall, who is eager to share his vision and talk about the execution of the film; the second is with Hall again, but this time he's joined by producer Lisa Waugh and actors Ashley Laurence and Laura Prepon in a much more light-hearted track. In addition there is a beefy making-of documentary sporting interviews with the cast and crew and a handful of deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary by Hall. Outtakes, a music video, and a still gallery finish things off.
A nifty little gem Lightning Bug is. There are definitely some familiar themes at work here, but they're still compelling and still relevant. Give it a whirl. (Besides, it's from the guy who designed Skip!)
Not guilty. Oh, and f*** Bone!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Director's Commentary
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