'The People Garden' Needs a Good Tilling

The People Garden
(Canada/Japan, 80 min.)
Written and directed by Nadia Litz
Starring: Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, François Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai West, Geneviève Brouillette, Liane Balaban
Courtesy of PNP

The People Garden gets lost in the woods as young wanderer Sweetpea (Dree Hemingway, While We’re Young) paces circles around her own fate. This second feature by Nadia Litz (Hotel Congress, plus the great short How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused By You!) never quite finds its full potential as a convoluted path and a drab lead bring it to a dead end. The People Garden needs a good tilling.

Litz’s strong visual sense often makes The People Garden a captivating watch even if what happens onscreen is a bit of a slog, for the director’s eye for haunting compositions finds an indelible companion in DP Catherine Lutes. The two create a taut, evocative atmosphere in the forests of Japan where death lingers in the air like mist as Sweetpea stumbles through the trees in search of her boyfriend Jamie (François Arnaud, The Girl King), who is missing from the shoot of his new music video. Why Sweetpea really wants to find him, though, is a bit of a pickle.

Sweetpea, see, flies all the way to Japan just to break up with Jamie. He’s only there for a few days on the music video shoot, and only arrived the day before according to his director (James LeGros) and producer (Geneviève Brouilette), so the urgency of Sweetpea’s mission makes less sense the more one considers it. After she flies into Japan and Instagrams Mount Fuji, Sweetpea seeks a connection solely to sever it. As the film brings Sweetpea through a labyrinth of death, longing, loneliness, and betrayal, her trek in the woods breeds only tragedy. One never senses any love or passion within Sweetpea and Jamie’s relationship—all we get is a Nicholas Winding Refn-ly pink dance scene as a narrative frame to their romance—so the trek has little emotional payoff. However, the setting’s likeness to Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide forest, is extra ominous—and a looming reminder of the potential of Litz’s premise.

Standing out from the trees is Jamie’s co-star and Sweetpea’s foil, a mature sex icon named Signe whose allure gives the forest its one jolt of life. Baywatch icon Pamela Anderson plays Signe and, although it’s an underwritten part, it’s refreshing to see Anderson give such an unexpected turn. The relatively small size of her role, however, throws the film off somewhat in the face of less recognisable talents with lesser authority and superfluous characters. Anderson simply eclipses Hemingway with her stronger screen presence. But, mind you, so do the rocks, trees, and wisps of grass that populate The People Garden.

The film cuts around Hemingway’s performance as best as it can, but the pacing and structure of The People Garden is ultimately too elusive for its own good. It has the air of a reverie but the grogginess of a sleeping pill just won't take, no matter how much one wants to dive into the dream world, and leaves the user in a state of fitful, tiring unrest. Disappointing.

The People Garden screened in Toronto at the Carlton Cinema.