Strip away the thin layer of narrative structure in The Hanging Garden--a young man returns home after a ten-year absence to attend his sister's wedding--and you find filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald's incisive and often chilling account of family life. Fitzgerald's protagonist is William (Chris Leavins), a gay man who has left his family's seaside home to live in the city. The film is partly devoted to William's teenage sexual awakening, but it's also about his dysfunctional family. In the opening scenes, during the course of the wedding reception, William's father Mac (Peter MacNeill), drinking heavily, picks a fight with another family member. William's mother Iris (Seanna McKenna), with an air of resignation, waits for Mac to pass out and then puts him to bed. Shortly after the wedding ceremony, William's new brother-in-law Fletcher (Joel S. Keller) flirts with him, and his sister Rosemary (Kerry Fox) doesn't discourage it. We later learn that Rosemary's husband was William's first lover. In a few quick shots, Fitzgerald deftly introduces the family's neuroses, and explains the reason for William's long absence.

As soon as William sets foot in the garden which surrounds his childhood home--the site of Rosemary's wedding--he sees himself as a young boy and as a depressed, lonely and overweight teenager. In fact, William's immediate family also sees these younger incarnations, and they cling to them rather than face the adult William, who has abandoned the family. In flashbacks, William remembers his father Mac and his mother Iris: one an abusive alcoholic who carefully tended his garden but couldn't love or nurture his wife and children, and the other an unhappy wife who vainly attempted to protect William and his sister from their father's rage. In a non-linear, sometimes surreal fashion, Fitzgerald chronicles William's childhood response to his family situation. Mainly, the young William eats. His overweight teenage ghost haunts the garden, calling out the names of the flowers and plants that grow there. In fact, the ghost commits suicide in the garden, hanging himself from a tree. Some part of William died in his father's garden, and he's returning home to bury the body, to dispel the ghosts of his childhood misery.

What makes The Hanging Garden so unusual is Fitzgerald's classic approach to a portrayal of family life. As in Greek tragedy, the sins of the family haunt successive generations. Fletcher is as unavailable to Rosemary physically as her father was emotionally, but she chooses Fletcher knowing that--in a symbolic way, she's recreating her mother's unsatisfying marriage. Since Iris takes off shortly after William arrives, Rosemary will take her place and care for her father and aging grandmother. The cycle will begin again; another generation, equally neurotic and unhappy, will occupy the family's house and garden.

There are humorous moments in The Hanging Garden, but these moments are also haunting. During Rosemary's wedding, Grace (Joan Orenstein), Mac's mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, shouts from the window of her room into the garden. In response to Grace's voice, Rosemary's old, blind dog begins whining and barking so that the wedding vows can barely be heard above the din. It's zany and funny, but it's also a subtle and brilliant way to communicate the intrusive nature of families. In the course of the film, you're often distracted by exaggerated and discordant sound, and in some cases you're unable to concentrate on anything else--for instance, the sound of drumming rain when it isn't raining. The sounds distract you from the narrative in the same way that the cacophony distracts these characters from their interior lives so that they become consumed by their neuroses.

In an essay on Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, Edna St.Vincent Millay wrote that the poet's flowers were 'flowers of doubt, flowers of torture, flowers of grief, flowers of blasphemy, flowers of weakness, flowers of disgust.' For William, 'Sweet William,' and the other 'flowers' in his family--Iris, Rosemary, and Whiskey Mac--the garden, like Baudelaire's, is an enduring source of painful memories. In fact, now there's Violet, William's daughter, who was borne of Iris' misguided attempt to turn her teenage son into a heterosexual. Violet looks more like a boy than a 10-year-old girl. She's the hybrid, raised as Iris' child in William's absence, but actually the daughter of the one family member who moved away. Ironically, her disturbing androgeny is the only flower of hope in The Hanging Garden. In the conundrum of family, hybrids are necessary--although they retain the attributes of their progenitors, they're often far better equipped for survival.

--Maria Garcia