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[Fantasia ’21] ‘Glasshouse’ review: Dreamy futuristic fantasy

“Once upon a time, when time still existed…”

Glasshouse makes its world premiere at this years Fantasia Film Festival. The feature length debut of writer and director Kelsey Egan (co-written by Emma De Wet), this South African film is a gorgeous look into a mysterious dystopian future.

Many pandemics from now, there’s something in the air that causes people to lose their memories called “the shred” for how it shreds through who you were. Most people are shells of human beings; it seems there are no animals, and what we know of life today is gone. The film centers on a family who are managing to survive, memories intact. They’re able to survive because of the glass house that they refer to as their sanctuary.

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What the family is concerned about outside is revealed to us slowly, through ceremony and song. Much of Glasshouse centers on the rituals and stories that help the family to keep their memories alive. The first ceremony that we see is after the young women of the family kill a possible intruder. The young women wear bonnets that have plastic shields around their faces to protect them from the air outside. Despite, or maybe because of, just having killed a man, the girls are cheerful and excited as they discuss, in their posh accents, what to do with the mans body parts.

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It is not long until the family is presented with a rather large problem. The eldest daughter, Bee (Jessica Alexander) has allowed an injured man (Hilton Pelser) into their home. The family has been extremely insular; just Bee, her mother, her sister Evie (Anja Taljaard), their youngest sister Daisy (Kitty Harris), and their brother Gabe, who has unfortunately been affected by the shred and is losing his ability to take care of himself.

The children are sheltered, but they have everything that they need within the glass house, and they certainly know how to protect themselves. The stranger threatens to change everything for them. He’s thrown off their carefully constructed balance, and it isn’t long until he makes the girls begin to question their memories and the truth of who he is.

Glasshouse is an interesting look at the effects of distorted memories. Both the mother and the stranger understand how these distortions can become useful manipulations, where Evie and Gabe are focused on the truth — even if they are not sure that they remember what the truth is.

One big downside of Glasshouse is the moments that feel a bit like a teen romance/drama a la Twilight. Because of the shred and the mystery of this dystopian future, there is an almost-supernatural element to the way that the family lives their lives, and when romance is added to the mix, the story became less believable.

Glasshouse

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The romance between Bee and the stranger becomes the crux of the conflict within the family. Jessica Alexander’s performance as Bee is melodramatic at times, which is at odds with the serious and emotional performance given by her counterpart, Evie (Anja Taljaard). Glasshouse is full of beautiful dialogue that lends a literary quality to the film; the relationship that forms between Bee and the stranger unfortunately makes that literary quality strongly reminiscent of Young Adult novels. This would have likely worked better if the characters were younger; while they’re never given an age, the fully bearded Stranger is definitely not a teen. 

Glasshouse has a strong aesthetic throughout, which is most apparent in the costuming. There’s a sense of detailing that is also reflected in the set design. Much like how the family makes use of everything they can in the film, everything in the design has a purpose. The house has a gorgeous chapel, where the family paints their stories on stained glass. Despite how much the family puts into remembering their stories, they can’t hang on to every truth.

Despite some issues and the sense of melodrama that sometimes weighs heavily in Glasshouse, it’s a strong film for both its premise and its sense of design. The blend of dystopian science fiction and mystery will keep you on your toes until the films surprising end.

The Fantasia Film Festival takes place in person and online from August 5 – August 25

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