By Terry Nelson
I am not a gardener, and what I know about flowers is they grow from seeds in the ground, and come in assorted colors. But I know movies – at least pretend to – and “The Immigrant Garden” directed and produced by C. Tad Devlin, and scripted by Caroline Wood from her award-winning play, is going to need some tender cultivation to find an audience. Not that it is a bad movie. Being one of the fortunate few to have attended the world premier Saturday at the Chehalis Theater, I can say it is a competent, professionally made film.
The story, set in 1910 Oakville, is about Cecily Barnes (Angela Johnson from Onalaska), and young woman turning 18 whose mother died when she was 3. She lives with her father, a teacher with propensity for bringing home cadet students for dinner – though with Cecily’s, shall we say, indelicate culinary ability, it is obvious the boys come to see Cecily, not to taste her cooking. Cecily finds a packet of seeds in a store one day and begins a correspondence with the seeds’ producer, Louise Beauchamp, an elderly woman living in England. The letters Cecily sends tell of her life, her thoughts, her feelings, while Louise’s convey wisdom, advice and encouragement. “The Immigrant Garden” is about time and place, growing pains, friendship, loss, family, and of course, gardens.
Because part of a critic’s job is to critique, meaning to give and estimate or evaluation of both good and bad in a work of art in the hopes (feeble at best) of generating discussion about the work, two quibbles, as small as they are, should be noted. It should be expected that in order to convey what two women, separated by an ocean, are saying to each other, there will be narration of the letters. However, there are very early scenes where narration by Cecily is more of a crutch, used to give a quick background about Cecily and her observations. It is always better to impart information through dialog and character revelation. To use narration to, in effect, speed-dial information is to take short cuts. These early scenes don’t work well. In effect, don’t tell me, show me. The other quibble is technical. The sound effect of footsteps not only sounds awkward and distracting, but stops the beat after the actor stops walking. But these are minor quibbles. On the positive side, the appearance of the movie has a definite look of the early 20th century. The costumes and sets are perfect. The cinematography is good, with some quite beautiful shots, and the camera setups are generally well thought out. Thought the editing was a bit jarring and choppy at times (OK, another minor quibble) the transitions were quite smooth. The music was great, as was the voice of Beverly Fite as Mrs. Beauchamp, reprising the role she played in New York. Her narration of Louise’s letters brings a class and dignity to the film. The majority of the cast is young, coming from Centralia, Kelso, Longveiw, Issaquah and points inbetween. It’s members did a fine job of capturing their characters with a minimum of effort. Curt Harris, as Cecily’s father, is also quite good as a man trying to be a dad when part of him died with his wife 14 years earlier.
I mentioned this film will need careful cultivation to find it’s audience. It’s not the type of movie you see in your local Cineplex. It is not a Hollywood movie, which is probably good, because mediocre Hollywood movies are getting good reviews simply because they have risen to that smoggy rarefied air. “The Immigrant Garden” has the look and feel of a work you might see on PBS. But whatever the life of the film, we wish it well, and hope for more from Devlin in the future.