'Lightning Bug' has a good heart. It's earnest in its message even though it may be a little on the nose at times. There's definitely no subtlety to the screenplay when it comes to dealing with overt abuse and wacky religious zealots. Still, it's an admirable independent production.
The movie begins as a young family move to the Deep South. The mother is poor. All the family can afford is a small mobile home on the outskirts of town. They seem like a happy enough bunch, despite their destitute circumstances.
Green Graves (Bret Harrison) is the older of two kids. He's a talented artist who specializes in creating the type of practical effects one might see in horror movies or creature features. He spends most of his time sculpting demon heads from clay and flipping through the pages of "Fangoria" magazine. His mother (Ashley Laurence) is a helpless victim of circumstance. She readily accepts her status as a poverty-stricken mom and treats herself as such. She's the kind of lady who always seems to be with the wrong guy no matter what. And the one she's met now is a real douchebag.
Earl (Kevin Gage) is the new boyfriend who spends far too much time drinking. His drinking leads to hitting, which soon turns the Graves household into a dangerous cauldron of bubbling tempers. Green's mom tries to justify staying with him, "He's got a good job. He makes $16,000 a year." Earl usually takes his problems out on Green by degrading his choice of hobby, which Green would one day like to make into a profession if he could ever get out to Hollywood.
Most coming-of-age stories need a love interest and Green finds his in the quirky, attractive girl at the local video store. Her name's Angevin (Laura Prepon), and her mother is as nutty as they come. Her mom carries around a pillow that she talks to and caresses. It's a physical memory of a father that's not in the picture anymore. Her mom also doesn't take too kindly to anything that doesn't have to do with church. So when her daughter starts dating a boy that creates masks and statues of demons and devils she goes crazy.
The tonal shifts of 'Lightning Bug' are rather odd. At times it feels like writer/director Robert Hall is going for a graphic horror vibe. Then there are other times where it feels like you're watching a made-for-TV movie. The pacing never feels like it catches onto what the story needs. It's a herky-jerky experience. The over-the-top stereotypical characters aren't helping matters much either. The deputy in town (Hal Sparks) is every ridiculous small town Sheriff cliché rolled into one. He's far too frustrating to watch. Why are small town lawmen almost always gigantic dicks?
The rest of the movie feels like reheated bits and pieces from countless other coming-of-age tales. The villains especially. I'm surprised Angevin's mom's wardrobe didn't call for a thin moustache and a cape.
Still, I enjoyed the romance surrounding Angevin and Green. It felt real and the two of them exude some fun chemistry. There are a few scenes where Green "gets it," that are satisfying to watch. He's a timid boy, by all accounts, but when he sees Earl beating on his mother all he sees is red. That scene is the best scene the movie has to offer in my opinion. All the abuse, frustrations, and anger played out in a brilliant, soundless sequence.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is an Image Entertainment release. It comes on a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. It's housed in a standard keepcase and the case indicates that it's coded for Region A viewing.
The movie has been shot on Super 16, so it has an intentional soft, grainy look. The 1080p picture helps bolster the soft visuals a tad, but the end result is a little less than satisfying. While reading this video review it is important to remember that this was shot on a shoestring budget and intentionally looks as aged as it does.
Soft focus dominates the visuals. There is little fine detail to be had, even in close-ups. Mid-range shots are gauzy at best. Edges aren't distinctly separated. Contrast is purposefully blown out of proportion. Whites burn hot, while blacks appear flat. Primaries are drab and dim.
Shadows exhibit crush more often than not. There are a few times during the movie where you can tell that low-budget post-production visual effects have been used. There are a few movie covers in the video store that have jaggie artifacts because they've been placed there after the fact. Also, there's a shot at the beginning that is used as a time fade. The two Graves boys board a school bus young, and when the school bus passes the other direction time has moved forward quite a bit. The two of them are much older. The bus, when it moves, travels in a jagged staccato motion. It's most likely due to the special effects budget constraints, but it is noticeable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a limited affair. You could've told me that it was a 2.1 mix and I probably would have believed you. The point being that the rear channels are nearly silent for the entire movie.
The front channels do all the lifting. Dialogue, sound effects, and music seem to come exclusively from them. Dialogue is somewhat clear, but far too often I was left wondering what was said in a whispered exchange. LFE is used lightly, except when the soundtrack crescendos to a couple startle screams present in the movie. That's about it for the audio. There's nothing special to hear here.
'Lightning Bug' has some sincere moments. It desperately wants to tell a story about overcoming the odds, rising above one's circumstances, and making life better. However, it tries to achieve its goals with stilted characters, odd pacing, and occasional tone deafness. The audio and video are only so-so. Fans of the film will, nevertheless, be extremely pleased with the extensive special feature package. They even went the extra mile and included a couple Blu-ray exclusives. You don't see much of that on low-budget releases. It's worth a look.
Note: I'm aware that straight 3s across the board would average out to an overall score of 3 stars. As detailed in our review methodology, the extra half a star is for the effort put forth by adding the HD extras.