Vancouver writer-director Keith Behrman grew up in the wide open expanses of Saskatchewan, Canada, and, although Flower & Garnet is set against the bleak beauty of Ashcroft, British Columbia, a semi-desert landscape in the Canadian West, the sensibility in this his debut feature is pure prairie.
A quietly affecting, if somewhat chilly, study of an emotionally repressed widower (Callum Keith Rennie) and his two children, 16-year-old Flower (Jane McGregor) and her eight-year-old brother Garnet (Colin Roberts), the film effectively conveys the wide open spaces between people that make communication so difficult.
Ever since his mother died while giving birth to him, little Garnet has had to bear the brunt of his father's complete inability to come to terms with the loss. Ed (Rennie) is a pick-up driving, working-class guy who'd rather drink beer with his buddies and fire off a few rounds from his gun than deal with the needs of a withdrawn little boy.
That duty has always fallen on the shoulders of Ed's daughter Flower, who has been both mother and sister to the little tyke, taking care of everything from preparing his meals and taking him to school to organizing his birthday parties and buying the gifts. An adult in most ways, Flower is completing the transition by starting to become sexually active. As she does, she insists that her father take more responsibility for Garnet. Nominally, he accepts - a botched fishing outing ensues - but it soon becomes apparent that Garnet is adrift in the gulf between Flower's withdrawal of attention and his father's distant emotions.
At first Garnet makes the best of things. He wanders around, observing - and in one memorable scene, even tasting - the physical world around him. Watching Flower's friend Ronnie (Dov Teifenbach) burn ants with a magnifying glass (Ronnie may be 16, but he's a very young 16), the sensitive little guy responds to Ronnie's statement that the ants don't feel anything by saying, 'If they don't feel anything, why are they trying to run away?' When, in an attempt to do the right thing by Garnet, his dad buys him a BB gun for his birthday, a series of events leading to tragedy is set in motion.
Writer-director Behrman - who has a number of award-winning shorts to his credit - is a natural behind the camera. A nearly wordless opening ten minutes of the film efficiently and economically give us all the back story we need while deftly sketching in character detail and nuance. He punctuates the emotional drama on display with beautifully rendered random shots of the world surrounding his characters, both reinforcing the isolation they feel and hinting at the possibility of redemption.
For their parts, his cast members perfectly reflect Behrman's vision. Rennie IS the middle-aged, weather-beaten, former Marlborough Man gone slightly to seed, a type this writer (a prairie boy himself) knows very well, while Colin Roberts is effectively opaque as the taciturn Garnet. The real revelation here, however, is Flower's Jane McGregor. She masters the difficult task of portraying a girl/woman with one foot still in childhood and the other in full, glorious womanhood. She will be seen again, you can be sure.