Some movies are what we call “horror” because they include monsters that are make-believe, existing only on film or in nightmares. Some movies are “horror” because they are based on real people (or their types) who very much exist in the real world. Lightning Bug is a horror movie of the latter type—the type that scares us because it’s a true story, too close for comfort simply because it exists in the world at all.
Green Graves (Bret Harrison) is teenager with more than one monster threatening his dreams to escape a nightmare. His monsters are an abusive stepfather, the ultra-religious mother of a newfound girlfriend, and the townspeople in general who don’t understand people unlike themselves. Earl Knight (Kevin Gage) is Green’s stepfather. He’s a man of the worst type—one who abuses women, drinks excessively, uses drugs, and smiles at you one moment, ready to kill you the next. Ms. Duvet (Shannon Eubanks) is a religious superwoman who considers Green satanic, because of his talent for special effects (which of course includes creating monsters of the latex sort). She’s determined to cleanse her daughter of his influence, at any cost—even if it is involves committing sins herself. As for the townspeople, the congregation of Ms. Duvet’s church is an iconic army of sign-wielding bible thumpers who, at times, resemble the vigilante mob in a Frankenstein movie. They represent the religious superheroes in society—the extremists who intervene in secular issues to the point of being monsters themselves. All of these are real in our world, affecting the unlucky among us with all the voracity of the worst in make-believe monsters. Lightning Bug is the perfect storm of real-world horrors in an all-too-common microcosm of life.
How is Green Graves threatened by so many real monsters in Lightning Bug? I suppose that is like asking why so many humans act like humans, creating so many chances for people to encounter their human behaviors. Some people are just unlucky enough, like Green, to experience more than their fair share of bad luck in life. As for being cursed with a wicked stepfather, the answer is simple and typical. Green’s mother Jenny (Ashley Laurence), as the story begins, has arrived in small-town Alabama, because she has nowhere else to go. She’s with Green and his younger brother Jay (Lucas Till) in front of a run-down trailer that’s barely standing. Soon enough, Jenny is with Earl Knight drinking, doing drugs, and making up excuses for all of Earl’s abusive behaviors. Jenny is a battered woman, with Earl, because of the money he provides, and because of her own dysfunctions, being addicted to abuse. She couldn’t escape, even if she had the chance, because it’s all she knows.
As for how all the monsters are connected, it’s part of the genius of it all. Some movies couldn’t handle so many monsters at once, but director Robert Hall does, and he does it well. They are interwoven so well within the story, that they, at times, seem like only different arms of the same monster. The way Earl, Ms. Duvet, and the town at large work to destroy Green, together unknowingly, would seem contrived, if it wasn’t for our common sense reminding us it’s real. No matter how crazy it gets, we know that real life can be just as crazy.
Laura Prepon—the sassy redhead from That 70s Show—is Angevin Duvet, the standout girlfriend of Green who seems too savvy for the town. She stands out like a torch, amongst everything else, with her big-city style and beauty, like a kindred spirit for Green. She’s like a splash of color against a monochrome background, in every frame. Angevin has a shady past that director Robert Hall keeps hidden, until the end. Hall surprises us with the truth about Angevin that isn’t quite what we thought, long after we stop wondering. Angevin serves as a possible obstacle for Green more than once, but emerges as more of an angel in the end. “How’s that?” you say. I’m not telling, even if you introduce me to Laura Prepon. Just kidding! Some things I can’t resist!
As you might imagine, Lightning Bug is a violent movie at times. There is domestic violence, verbally-abused women and children, and graphic as well as implied images of murder. However, at no point is the violence excessive or gratuitous. There’s just enough to make the movie realistic and effective. In the behind-the-scenes special on the DVD, I learned that a scene showing a bullet exiting a man’s head was deleted in the final cut. This was a smart decision, as it would have been inconsistent with the more effective omission of such gore. Just enough was just right!
Lightning Bug is also sometimes humorous, but only in the way real life can be—albeit sometimes in the most extreme of ways. Ms. Duvet has an attachment to her ex-husbands pillow that must be seen to be appreciated (and laughed at). The way this is used against her, to make her do what is right, is yet another humorous extreme to see. The humor, while acting as a needed relief, also helps to emphasize the horror of real life otherwise.
The acting in Lightning Bug is superb all around! There’s a wide variety of characters in the movie, and they are all played expertly by everyone. Normally, it’s easy picking out the one or two actors who gave the knock-out performance—but not in Lightning Bug! In the behind-the-scenes special I watched, the actors also talked about how they were not paid much for their work, as it was a lower-budget, independent film. They also talked about how they were just as committed to make the movie a standout regardless. They all proved again just how much people can accomplish, with or without big Hollywood budgets and premium pay. This movie appears no less than the best of what Hollywood can do!
Bret Harrison does a knockout job of playing Green Graves! He shows a believable transformation from a naïve boy to a young man who gains strength and wisdom in the face of all that tries to destroy him. Although I’m partial to Laura Prepon, her performance as Angevin is perfect; her character has a well of emotions that Prepon is able to bring to the surface, on cue, in a most believable and natural way. With more screen time, Bob Penny could have stolen the show as another of Green’s angels who helped and encouraged Green in the face of so many obstacles; Bob is a veteran actor who brings realism to anything he does. Although others could have played the part of Ms. Duvet, no one could have done it better than Shannon Eubanks; a religious zealot can be a stereotype, but Shannon gave the cliché originality. Kevin Gage played the part of Earl Knight well enough to make me wonder how much he might be like the character in life. (No insult intended, Kevin. You just did it too well!)
Director Robert Hall gives a big wink to horror fans when Ashley Laurence (Kirsty Cotton from Hellraiser) picks up a copy of Fangoria magazine, while in a supermarket. Any serious fans out there will know exactly what I’m talking about, as soon as it happens. Speaking of Ashley Laurence, I must add that I was most impressed with her performance as Green’s well-intentioned but dysfunctional mother. Previously, I’ve seen her kicking Cenobitic ass, as the cunning, puzzle-solving cutie from Hellraiser. In Lightning Bug, Laurence was totally convincing as an opposite character type—an uneducated, drug-using mom, complete with all the mannerisms and accents you’d expect.
“What do Lightning Bugs have to do with this movie?” you may ask. I suppose the answer is subjective, as it is in most good movies that let the viewer decide. I can only offer you my idea of what the connection could be. Lightning Bugs, you see, represent many different things to many different people. Their meaning may even change as we grow from children to adults (hence the ambiguity here). Lightning Bugs, because of their pretentious nature as a maker of light, stand out among other insects. They glow in the night, drawing attention to themselves, advertising their originality, and, at the same time, making themselves vulnerable to those who find them curious and different. They are often captured in jars, kept, and watched for a night, until their short life in our world is over. They are like so many people in the world who are like lightning bugs, captured because of their differences behind a glass jar—a jar representing the obstacles and circumstances in life. Am I right about all of this? Not necessarily, but that’s not important. What is important is that the movie made me think. It’s a rare movie that does that. Is Green one of the lucky Lightning Bugs who escapes from the jar, despite everything against him, to go on and glow for all to see. Or, is he one of those who remains trapped in the jar? You’ll have to watch the movie to answer that question.
The true test for liking Lightning Bug may indeed be with its ending--whether or not it's what you want--and I do stress want as opposed actually expecting realistically. Yes, many of us want--while later calling it too predictable--the boy and girl to fall in love and live happily ever after...together, no less. But, does that happen? We may also want the happy couple to take the little brother with them as well. Does that happen? Finally (in the possible absence of all else), does Green refuse to take Angevine's money as we want--even though she really, sincerely wants him to have it? And again, does even Green himself manage to escape from the town? Yes, we may want all of these clichéd things that make us feel better about humanity--while later criticizing the movie for being so much like everything else. However, in the end, Lightning Bug is a movie where people act just like people sometimes do in real life, whether we like it or not.
Even with all the possibilities for disappointment, Lightning Bug is more than just a good movie; it’s a great movie! It’s one of those rare types that make you think about it long after it’s over. It makes you see things differently, humbles you, and, if you’re lucky, makes you feel fortunate in the end. It makes you want to tell your friends about it, and even go out on the limb to recommend it. Yes, Lightning Bug is one of the rare bugs that gets out of the jar and shines for all to see. See it, talk about it, and, above all, enjoy!