The old tale of the solitary shining light in a sea of despair and ignorance, yearning to escape and spread its creative wings, has been spun countless times in cinema. Lightning Bug, from writer/director Robert Hall, treads this well-worn path with refreshing results. I found myself rooting for the underdog to set fire to his destiny, and overcome the adversity against amazingly insurmountable odds. Donâ€™t get me wrongâ€¦..this isnâ€™t Rocky or Hoosiers or any one of a vast multitude of sports coming-of-age films. But Lightning Bug, originally released in 2004 but now available on Blu-Ray, appeals to the horror crowd on many levels and will leave the viewer with a sense of imperfect closure that fills the void left by numerous tragedies.
Bret Harrison portrays idealistic artist Green Graves, a teen forced to grow up too quickly in order to protect his single mother and younger brother. Graves creates plaster busts of monsters, bloody props of carnage and obsesses over gory makeup kits that would make Tom Savini and Rick Baker proud. His dream is to move to Los Angeles and pursue a career in the horror movie makeup and visualizations, and leave behind the small-mindedness of his small Southern town. Heâ€™s misunderstood, and is faced with adversity and landmines at every turn. Harrison plays the â€œfish out of waterâ€ role very well, right down to the lack of a discernible accent. Heâ€™s even on a higher plain, intellectually, than his best friends. Graves is a Fangoria-reading, blood capsule-spewing outsider, and heâ€™s being dragged and beaten down by his environment with each passing day.
Small-town skepticism and politics begin banding together to ruin the lives of those who are different, and who dare try to break the mold. Graves has friends who are loyal, almost to a fault. He has family, as his loveable but gullible mother and little brother prove. So whatâ€™s the problem? For one, their lives are being controlled and terrorized by an evil and violent stepfather (played brilliantly by Kevin Gage). And when our hero finally meets his horror-loving equal, a local video store clerk named Angevin Duvet (That 70s Showâ€™s Laura Prepon, in yet another promiscuous post-sitcom role), their happiness is threatened by her religious fanatic mother. The decked is stacked against Green Graves, and Harrison does a great job of portraying the reluctant protector torn between leaving his family and pursuing his dreams. A religious cult and a homicidal drunken stepfather are a lot to endure.
The acting in Lightning Bug is good, if not a little uneven. All of these characters are flawed, but some waiver back and forth between flashes of evil strength one moment, and pathetic vulnerability the next. Two absolute standouts are, ironically enough, the villains. I donâ€™t want to imply that Gage is being typecast, because if he is itâ€™s a perfect fit. He kills it (no pun intended) once again as a backwards, alcoholic redneck. Heâ€™s a killer of dreams, and his stepfather character is one that many people know in their personal lives (though hopefully not to such a violent extent). A creepy performance is also turned in by Shannon Eubanks, Angevinâ€™s mother and hardcore bible-thumping lunatic. Her character represents all the worst of what we know about groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, and Eubanks brings it home powerfully. She leads the charge in bringing about Gravesâ€™ miserable downfall, though one small criticism I would have has to do with her rapid face-turn near the end (no spoilers here).
Whatever impact the more powerful scenes pack are ramped up all the more by the score, which is surprisingly (and quietly) brutal. Robert Hall does a great job of setting the mood, though there is almost a complete lack of symbolism throughout the action as he goes for the more straightforward approach. That doesnâ€™t normally work with a film bearing such a generic premise, but Hall pulls it off. Perhaps the greatest effect generated has to do with catching fireflies, a hobby that Graves and his friends enjoy and which lends itself to the movieâ€™s title. The slaughtering of these illuminated insects by boot stomp creates a very eerie effect late in the film, when one of the protagonists returns to stalk by moonlight.
Though unremarkable for the most part, Lightning Bug is a film with a lot of heart against a clear backdrop of good versus evil, engaging the viewer and forcing you to root for the kid facing off with his world. Not all movies have a completely happy ending, not every good guy gets the girl, and evil isnâ€™t always vanquished in the end. Green Graves isnâ€™t an everymanâ€¦.heâ€™s a kid with a special talent, stuck in a land where heâ€™s seen as delusional. The clock is ticking on his future, and as his window to escape keeps closing you will find yourself emotionally invested in hoping, praying that heâ€™ll succeed. This film is a testament to writer/director Robert Hall, as he adopts a well-worn proposition and makes it his own. In the same vein, he makes it interesting.