Embattled dreams, a single mother, alcoholism, poverty, kissin' cuzzin' jokes, a dumpy trailer, spousal abuse, Bible thumpers, a newfound girlfriend with a dark past (Laura Prepon): on its surface, Lightning Bug might look like a couple hundred other coming-of-age dramas, dutifully checking off just about every cliché on the list. What I initially dismissed as more of the same quickly drew me in, though. For one, Lightning Bug is wholly sincere, not some cynically contrived drama to cash in on a bunch of laurels from however many different film festivals. Its emotions are real, aided in particular by intensely powerful performances by Ashley Laurence, Laura Prepon, and an ambitious yet vulnerable Bret Harrison. Green's passion for creature effects beams brightly throughout every last frame of the film. That he's a horror fanatic resonates with me, seeing as how I wasn't too far from that age when I tumbled headfirst into the genre, but I think anyone with an artistic calling can relate to his plight.
I appreciate that there isn't some singular nemesis or obstacle Green has to overcome to be happy. Sure, sure, Green struggles with his stepfather's incendiary temper, his girlfriend's fundamentalist Christian mother (Shannon Eubanks), and a smug, condescending sheriff's deputy (Hal Sparks). What he's ultimately pitted against, though, isn't
Lightning Bug draws deeply from the life of its writer/director, as Robert Hall also grew up in this very same town in Alabama and went on to found a prominent effects shop in Hollywood. It's not exactly the sort of film I'd expect a horror effects wizard to helm for his first time to the plate as a director, but that's kind of the point. Hall coaxes near-unilaterally fantastic performances from his cast and builds such powerful emotions that it feels like the work of a seasoned professional, not a first-time director. In making a movie like this, Hall takes risks not far removed from the character standing in for himself, and there's certainly something to be said for literally putting his money where his mouth is. Actually filming in a remote speck on the map in Alabama lends Lightning Bug a wonderful sense of authenticity as well. It's just been far
I'm honestly not left with a lot to complain about. I guess Lightning Bug might be a bit too overstuffed, though. For instance, Green has a kid brother who gradually becomes deeply religious. A good bit of time is spent fleshing that out, and yet he's never actually given any sort of dramatic or emotional hook. Even if the point is to show how different the brothers' reactions are to their plight, he could be cut out of the movie altogether and it wouldn't amount to any difference at all. I don't know, it's just that no matter what flaws might be staring me in the face, I could easily shove them aside. Some people seize an opportunity to direct because it's the next stage in their career; meanwhile, I'm left with the sense that Lightning Bug is a film that Robert Hall had to make. It's borne of passion, and that's absolutely contagious. Lightning Bug alternates between cute, playful, haunting, and horrific. It's bursting at the seams with honesty, and that sort of sincerity really does go a long way. I'm very glad to have had the chance to discover Lightning Bug now that it's found its way onto Blu-ray, and I very Highly Recommend that anyone who's made it this far in my rambling review do the same.
A couple of quick notes before I move onto the technical end of the presentation, though. First, this Blu-ray disc features two cuts of Lightning Bug, one of which I don't believe has ever been available on home video. Second, the 'original' version of Lightning Bug has been fiddled with a bit, and that may or may not ruffle the feathers of purists. Most of the changes are digital nips and tucks to strengthen some of the visuals. There's also a smirking insert in the video store that threw me off. Green walks through all these racks of clamshell VHS tapes, and all of a sudden, there are the covers for Laid to Rest and ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2, produced as recently as 2011. Yeah, yeah, I get the joke, but...anachronistic! C'mon, though, if that's the only thing I'm complaining about...
Nevermind that Lightning Bug was filmed right at a decade ago; the photography has a indeterminate sense of time to it, to the point where if I didn't know better, I'd absolutely believe its cameras had been rolling back in 1987. Considering that the movie is set somewhere around then, that dated quality ultimately works in Lightning Bug's favor too. Of course, that doesn't translate all that well to traditional high definition eye candy.
Even for a fiercely independent 16mm production, Lightning Bug is considerably softer and less detailed than anticipated. Texture and clarity are at best a marginal improvement over what I'd expect to see from an upconverted, well-mastered DVD. I don't have Anchor Bay's standard definition release of Lightning Bug handy to do a direct comparison, but if this blows the 2005 disc out of the water, that says more about the DVD than the presentation on this Blu-ray disc. I'm not going to say for certain that Lightning Bug is a straightahead upconvert, but so little definition and detail are resolved that it's somewhere in that general ballpark. I mean, open these screenshots to full size and tell me if there's anything the least bit "HD" about them:
I'd expect a 16mm indie to boast a crisply rendered sheen of grain; here, it's chunky and generally indistinct, far more DVD-like in that sense than what I'd expect out of a newly-minted Blu-ray release. Director Robert Hall bemoans the lack of a gritty texture in one of his audio commentaries, but this goes beyond that. Its palette is somewhat strangely saturated and doesn't really strike me as playing in Blu-ray's colorspace. On the other hand, black levels are substantial, and what speckling there is can readily be shrugged off.
Presumably all of this met with Robert Hall's approval, though. After all, Lightning Bug did pass through the digital arm of his special effects company for this Blu-ray release. Even grading on a microbudget indie curve, though, Lightning Bug looks decidedly lackluster in high definition.
Both versions of Lightning Bug have been encoded with AVC and are presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 95 minute cut preferred by Hall has been authored at a higher bitrate than the extended version. Between the two separate presentations of the film and an onslaught of needlessly upconverted extras, Lightning Bug takes up the better part of this dual-layer Blu-ray disc.
On the other hand, Lightning Bug's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks -- one for each cut of the film -- are a staggering improvement over anything I'd expect a DVD to be able to deliver. Easily the highlight of the lossless 5.1 audio is the music, particularly the startling distinctness and clarity of Kevn Kinney's contributions. Though the front channels expectedly shoulder the bulk of the work, the surrounds are used frequently and effectively as well. The rears are teeming with atmospheric color and do a brilliant job establishing a sense of place. Even though the lower frequencies aren't relentlessly rattling, the subwoofer makes its presence known when it counts. There's a good bit of stereo separation up front, dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, and...well, aside from some light clipping
Both cuts of Lightning Bug are accompanied by Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks (448kbps). The 95 minute version of Lightning Bug also offers a Dolby Digital stereo surround track (448kbps) and a pair of audio commentaries. There are no dubs, subtitles, or captions.
This Blu-ray release of Lightning Bug carries over the extensive slate of extras from Anchor Bay's DVD from 2005, and there are a slew of very noteworthy new additions along for good measure. For whatever reason, the overwhelming majority of them have been upconverted from standard definition.
The Final Word
Lightning Bug is a smartly crafted, resonant, and remarkably engaging story about the pursuit of dreams against the most impossible of odds. This isn't an "...and they lived happily ever after!" sort of coming-of-age film, though; it's about determination in the face of adversity and loss. Green's passion for his craft is infectious, certain to warm the cold, deadened hearts of horror fanatics like myself with a similar lifelong fascination with makeup effects. The film is emotional without feeling cloying or oversentimental, it doesn't hesitate to take jaw-droppingly bleak sharp turns, and what threaten to come across as small-town Southern drama tropes are elevated by a set of terrific performances. Highly Recommended, despite my reservations about the presentation.