Lightning Bug Movie Review

Lightning Bug is one of those rare films that actually gets better as it goes along. It starts out as a run-of-the-mill coming of age story, but eventually finds the idiosyncrasies that separate it from the pack. It opens with Jenny Graves (Ashley Laurence), a single mom with two children, moving from Detroit to a trailer in Alabama. Flash forward several years, when her sons Green (Bret Harrison) and Jay (Lucas Till) are in their teen and pre-teen years respectively, dealing with mom's new husband Earl (Kevin Gage), who has all the charm of a rattlesnake.

For the first five minutes, the film feels like a low-budget remake of 8 Mile as we expect a drunken Kim Basinger to storm in shouting "What y'all doin' in my trailer?" Not helping matters are somewhat clunky dialogue, acting, and editing. For about 20 minutes we're introduced in this manner to Green's world, populated by cousin-lusting teens, hard-drinking man-children, and our hero's own dreams of creating monsters for horror films. But by the time that love interest Angevin (Laura Prepon, That '70s Show) is introduced, things take a turn for the more polished.

Angevin works in a video store and shares Green's slasher penchant, but their romance is hindered by her hyper-religious mother (Shannon Eubanks). The plot proceeds as the forces of Green's increasingly abusive stepfather and Angevin's meddlesome mother conspire to kill their dreams.

All of this is fairly boilerplate, but certain elements help keep it afloat. Prepon's performance is more layered and focused than most of the cast's, and they seem to rise to meet it. In addition, Gage and Eubanks bring an intensity to their roles. Hal Sparks (Queer as Folk) also lends strong support as a deputy with his own talk show.

What really propels the film out of the gravity of its clichés, though, is writer/director Robert Hall's increasing attention to what makes his story unique. Angevin's mother carries around a pillow with a face drawn on it as a reminder of her husband. More than just a gimmick, it actually reveals elements of her character that are equal parts hilarious, creepy and pathetic. Hall adds dimension to the town's stereotypically intolerant church folk by having Jay take an earnest and fulfilling interest in religion.

The most satisfying moments come from Green's distinctive creature feature talents. He auditions for the town's haunted house by using his prosthetic creations to scare the hell out of the attraction's proprietor (Bob Penny). As the situation at home escalates, the horror element is used to more insightful effect, filtering Earl's abusiveness through the lens of that genre. Certain scenes are shot in such a way that they wouldn't seem out of place in a slasher film. In these instances the film finds its voice, and there are more of them as it continues.

But to get there you have to sit through lines like "I'm not a little girl anymore" and plot points that are telegraphed from a mile away. The humor also takes awkward tonal shifts. Some jokes, like a genuinely funny scene involving Green's paint-huffing uncle (Donald Gibb - Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds saga), seem to materialize from a USA Up All Night movie. That's all well and good, but juxtaposed with domestic violence it seems out of place.

It's worth the wait to get from the film's fumbling first steps to its more assured climax, but such shortcomings prevent me from giving it more than qualified praise.

Reviewed at the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Fright night.


Comments

Lightning Bug Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 2004

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