VIFF review: Canada's reparative therapy drama Flowers of the Field is a sensitively wrought directorial debut

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      Flowers of the Field (Canada) 75 min. Streaming online at the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival until October 7 at VIFF Connect

      Struggling with his attraction to men, the taciturn Aaron (Alex Crowther) turns to a reparative therapy retreat run by commanding counsellor John (Ryan Hollyman). At a countryside house, Aaron obediently falls in line with the other attendees. Disregarding subtle warning signs, they religiously follow the daily routines—going for daily runs, participating in therapeutic exercises and sessions, eating meals in silence.

      First-time writer-director Andrew Stanley demonstrates exceptional sensitivity to and understanding of his subject matter. Minimalist dialogue, silent spaces, and shrewd editing provide breathing room for internal tensions to surface through intimations and suggestion—it’s an accurate depiction of the world of closeted men where what is unspoken and simmering beneath the surface is just as or even more important than what is said.

      Obvious from the outset, the men’s unquestioning devotion is ripe for exploitation as the insidious proceedings advance. As Aaron seemingly hollows out into a shell of a person, the slow-burning narrative asks how much subjugation can Aaron sustain—or will he be forever lost?

      Although the monotonous nature of their schedule is well-captured, predictability develops from numerous scenes starting with a zombie-like Aaron shuffling towards the discovery of some new development. In addition, as the characters begin to express themselves in various ways, their feelings are understandable on a psychological level, but would benefit from more set-up with emotional cues.

      But those are quibbles—it’s an impressive, thoughtful, intelligent, and well-crafted piece by Stanley, supported by solid performances from Hollyman, convincing as the questionable group leader, and Crowther, who effectively tackles the challenge of balancing deep understatement with emotional complexity.

      Like the historical documentary Cured (about the gay-rights fight to have homosexuality removed from mental disorders) also screening at VIFF, it’s also a timely consideration amid ongoing efforts to ban conversion therapy (and its variously named versions). Yet it also raises broader questions about the vulnerability of those seeking help—and who is it who really needs help?

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.