When a film begins as average as Lightning Bug, one expects it to plunge further into the abyss of films not worth watching, but a curious thing happens as the movie progress: it becomes an increasingly enjoyable movie to watch. Best described as a strange hybrid of the Chainsaw/Dave elements from Summer School, This Boy’s Life, and the Dwight Yokam sequences from Sling Blade, Lightning Bug is a coming-of-age drama centering around a small town boy with aspiration of becoming a famed special effects artist.
It begins as bland Lifetime Movie fare: a mother moves her two children from Detroit to the rural south, hooks up with an alcoholic a*****e who belittles Green, the film’s protagonist, and beats on anyone who gets in his way. While this drama unfolds, Green works on his prosthetic effects, meets a girl, and finagles his way into a gig designing a local Halloween fun house.
Already it appears as though this film is heading for cheap melodrama, but then the film begins to exude charm by extolling the virtues of its eccentricities. Instead of focusing on the abusive stepfather, it turns its attention to Green and his ambitions while splitting the drama between two antagonists, a daring feat that could have ended in disaster had the antagonists been handled with less aplomb and a greater desire to milk this duel conflict.
The second antagonist comes in the form of Green’s girlfriend’s (played by That ‘70s Show’s Laura Prepon) fundamentalist mother, who believes that Green’s ambition to become an artisan in the special effects field is a mask for Satanic worship and behavior.
It is here that the film begins to come into its own. Coupled with his predilection for all things gory, the camera begins to skew the townsfolk’s perception of Green, and the film takes on an air as peculiar as Green’s persona is to the passersby around him. All while heightening the familial conflicts he’s forced to deal with back home, with his seemingly indifferent mother and drunken, violent stepfather.
As well as he handled his chores as a director, Director Robert Hall proves to have a keen eye for casting, littering the film with men and women capable of delivering tight performances and creating believable characters whom we grow to care about. And while everyone on board, from Laura Prepon to Ashley Laurence (playing Green’s mother) to Kevin Gage (playing the much hated stepfather), the true star of this film is Green himself, wonderfully played by Brett Harrison. Harrison delivers a solid performance built entirely on ambition while adding a sensitive flare and depth that one of his contemporaries might have neglected.
Hall, on whose coming-of-age this film is loosely based, anchors the film with a fascinating choice to shoot and direct Lightning Bug as though it were a 70’s-era horror film. This clash of styles serves to heighten the honesty of the piece without devolving into a state of melodramatic cheese. It is a movie that, while not completely devoid of sentiment, manages, for the most part, thanks to Hall’s choices as a filmmaker, to keep its distance without slipping into the dreaded realm of being too cold a picture to enjoy.