by david mcdonald
Directed by: C. Tad Devlin
Written by: Caroline Wood
Starring: Angela Johnson, Beverly Fite,
Curt Harris, Michael Duncan,Gus Vanderholk,
Win Ezell, Peter Lewis, Gabe
Hacker, Madeline Lockwood, Philip A.
Kennedy, Caitlin Vincent, Tabitha Ouellette
Based on the play, which in turn was based on the novel ofthe same title, “The Immigrant Garden” is a true homegrown hybrid, originally a film class project at Centralia College, then blooming, through State funding, into a feature length film. Taking place circa 19l0, this pioneer period provides the backdrop for land-mark events such as the Suffragette Movement, race relations, cultural traditions of family — both of its members and its place in the community. Of particular interest is that the story takes place here in Oakville, and even uses the local hardware store (Route 12 has disappeared under a layer of sod, rutted and trampled by horse-drawn daycarts) in some of the footage.
The story centers on Cecily Barnes, a local schoolgirl who, while shopping in the general store, happens upon some seeds, handsomely packaged by a certain Louise Beauchamp, a woman locally famous for her green thumb, but who has since returned to her native England. Inspired without knowing quite why, Cecily is determined to plant a garden ofher own and decides to ask Ms. Beauchamp for guidance. It is under this tutelage, in the form of narrated letters, that Cecily embarks upon a journey of self-discovery, facing her fear and fostering her strength, she represents the cultural icon of womanhood in a changing society.
She’s the daughter of Arthur Barnes, a teacher at a nearby military academy, so formal and straightlaced he can barely move his head, his waistcoat stuffed to bursting with rockribbed propriety. Obviously this man embodies Victorian values and, determined to see his daughter well matched, hoodwinks cadets from his class as potential suitors and bringing them home for a number of her indigestible dinners. These cadets are played for laughs, callow and clownish, saying the wrong things and making all the wrong decisions (and a few of them are genuinely funny). In fact, generally speaking, the men in this piece as the complacent majority are villains by default, reactionary and socially inept. (A notable exception, however, the store-keeper of ethnic minority who relates to Cecily’s situation — they share the understanding of the downtrodden.) The women receive more careful attention, running the gamut from enlightened to oblivious.
On the one hand we have the heroine and her benefactor (who now provides seeds for free, as Cecily’s garden has become symbolic of liberation), as well as a local piano teacher, a single mother and self-reliant; on the other, there are Cecily’s school chums, a giggly gaggle of so-called proper young ladies, stereotypically vacuous and reputation-conscious, destined for the domestic yokes of wife and mother, and somewhat dimwittedly delighted at the prospect — even “the sophisticated one”, who smokes cigars openly and speaks with world-weary affectation; and on the extreme end of that spectrum is the frigid, old-maid schoolmarm who wears her priggishness like a whalebone corset. But the touchstone relationship remains between the only child Cecily, whose mother died in childbirth, andchamp,a canny old dame whose charming, if some-what florid narration only occasionally turns into pap or platitudes; in short, a higher octave of the mother-daughter relationship — Earth Mother to Flower Child. The sentiment found in “The Immigrant Garden” has a certain appeal, and the conviction of the filmmakers is admirable; this group deserves high marks for noble intent, and this portrayal of triumphs and tribulations of the local pioneer ancestors gratifying — a story that well deserves to be told, and this one certainly has its momenents…
…And a word must be said about the crew and the high quality of work there, especially the production design and costuming – somebody did their hoework – and the cinematography has a few extraordinary peaks especially during quiet, pastoral moments. “The Immigrant Garden” has undeniable moments of charm, insight and humor. Also, I found it direct and honest, and better yet, historicaly accurate for a change – not a bad claim for any film.
(Note: Town officials and the production company are negotiating a number of private screenings for the local communities with ticket sales to defray the cost; it’s well worth our support.)Website to check out: www.immigrantgarden.com (Northwest Film Projects)