By: BabyRuth (Three Beers) –
Sweetpea (Dree Hemingway) has decided to break up with her rock star boyfriend Jamie (François Arnaud). There is urgency to this decision as Sweetpea cannot wait for Jamie’s return home from a video shoot in Japan, so instead she opts to get on a plane and give him a bummer of a surprise visit.
“What else could I possibly use this phone for?”
When Sweetpea arrives at the airport Jamie is nowhere to be found. Instead a mysterious man named Mak (Jai West) arrives to pick her up and bring her to the video shoot. The location is in a secluded forest at the base of Mount Fuji. During the car ride, something seems off to Sweetpea and once Mak leaves her at the entrance with only a roll of marking tape (to find her way back should she get lost), that suspicion is confirmed.
Instead of sending Jamie a quick “Sorry, we’re done, kthxbai” text, getting an Uber, and hightailing it back home on the first flight out of Creepytown, Japan, Sweetpea enters the forest and comes across a young Japanese schoolgirl also wandering through. (Not strange at all!) Despite the language barrier, the girl helps Sweetpea find the video shoot.
Jamie is missing from the set as well, having disappeared into the vast forest. “Maybe he went to take a piss,” someone helpfully suggests. Everyone involved with the shoot seems to be hiding something and Sweetpea is determined to find out what is going on and what happened to Jamie.
Aokigahara forest, aka “The Suicide Forest,” (it is a well-known final, as in ultimate-final travel destination) has been a popular subject for films lately. This year’s earlier The Forest and Sea of Trees both used the eerie location as inspiration. It makes sense as it is a perfect setting for horror, drama, and mystery genres.
Writer/director Nadia Litz, along with cinematographer Catherine Lutes, does a wonderful job capturing the beauty and sadness of the forest. It’s exquisitely filmed with many gorgeously framed images that stay with the viewer long after the end of the movie. The film looks more expensive than its budget likely was and shows just what is possible with a keen eye for detail and a talented crew,
Litz draws her audience in right away and creates a world of unnerving tension that never lets up. She has a unique style that is very visual and I’m excited to see more from her in the future.
Dree Hemingway (daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Ernest) is tasked with carrying most of the film as we see nearly everything through Sweetpea’s eyes and she handles it well even despite it being difficult to stay on board with Sweetpea, since she makes many questionable and frustrating choices.
The small supporting cast features a couple of well-known names. James Le Gros stars as the director of the video shoot and provides a few fleeting moments of comic relief amongst the gloominess. Pamela Anderson plays Signe, a former lingerie model, still clinging to her sex symbol image as the star of the video, who may have a connection to Jamie’s disappearance. She nails the role in the little screentime she is given and strikes a perfect balance between self-parody and sincerity. We don’t see much of François Arnaud, since he spends the majority of the film you know, being missing, but he gets a chance to shine as well.
For a mystery, there isn’t really much of one. Jamie is missing and everyone is secretive about it, but it never goes anywhere from there. He just got up and walked away is the explanation, with no one, other than Sweetpea, ever seeming overly concerned.
The forest and why it’s so infamous is never mentioned. The audience knows going in what this film is about but it is never acknowledged by any of the characters which is a puzzling decision on Litz’s part. It’s not that it’s a secret and all that difficult to find out. I mean, Sweetpea has a smartphone. A simple Google search could clue her in.
(And depending on her data plan, she could stream The Forest).
Mak never explains why he left her stranded at the entrance to the forest with only a roll of tape to find her way back. He does say something to the effect that he wanted her to discover the forest for herself, but why? What was the point if no one will tell her anything about the place?
“Nothing strange going on here. Nothing at all. Don’t look there.”
It’s hard to care about the characters when we aren’t given much of a backstory. All we know about Sweetpea and Jamie is that they went to a club and danced one time (as seen in a flashback that is shown twice and goes on far too long). It never makes sense as to why Sweetpea would take such great measures by traveling halfway around the world to end the relationship (when the video shoot was only a couple of days) or why Jamie would seemingly contemplate ending it all over her.
And Jamie is apparently some big rock star, which again, if a well-known celebrity goes missing, it would be huge news. I’m not sure what the point of making him a famous personality was. (I guess to explain the shoot and how he was able to get Signe to sign on?)
We never learn much about the supporting characters either. Many are nameless, only identified by their occupation (Le Gros is simply known as “Director”), while others are addressed by their assigned employee numbers. At one point Sweetpea asks Mak why he does what he does. He doesn’t give an answer. The most interesting character, Signe, is unfortunately not given much time either. Her involvement with Jamie is treated, at first, as a significant piece of the puzzle and then just dropped. And it’s a shame because there is a great scene between Anderson and Hemingway where I thought “ooh, this is finally getting good.” But then… nothing. No resolution. It makes the inclusion of Pamela Anderson seem like stunt casting and again, that’s really too bad, because she’s pretty damn compelling in the role.
Perhaps a second viewing of the film looking past the surface level storyline missteps and focusing more on the abstract would be worth a watch to help understand Litz’s vision better. Maybe leaving out important details may have been intentional to add to the mystery and leave up to the viewer to fill in based on their interpretation. But still, there needs to be something for the audience to connect with in order to feel the intended dramatic weight, and unfortunately there isn’t much to go on.
While The People Garden has an interesting concept, beautiful visuals, and good performances, it never quite fully connects and leaves the audience wondering what was left in that forest.
The People Garden (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever anyone smokes a cigarette
Take a Drink: subtitles
Take a Drink: whenever “luggage” is mentioned
Take a Drink: obligatory Pam Anderson nude scene
Take a Drink: whenever Sweetpea stares sadly
Take a Drink: whenever anyone wears sunglasses
Do a Shot: the end (that’s it?)