Director Gergo Somogyvari’s documentary Fairy Garden has the unlikeliest pairings fronting it. The nineteen-year-old Fanni, who is grappling with her sex transition, is living with the sixty-year-old Laci in a ramshackle place situated in the woods of Hungary. When the film opens, she has been with him for nearly two years. It is an extraordinarily tough time for both, having been struck by the blow of the country’s spate of new laws that have banned homelessness and gender change in documents, driving both communities to a state of utter precarity.
Fanni had been kicked out of her home and put into a state care center, which she fled. The authorities tried to take her back when she was with Laci. But she ran away yet again to be with him, trusting in his care and firmly believing he would never turn her out.
Laci is a stickler at his construction work. A large part of the film fundamentally views him as deeply invested in erecting and patching together his dwelling, nurturing a prospective garden, always hammering away at a log, fixing up bolts and nails, and urging Fanni to chip in as well. Of course, Fanni cannot quite fathom his single-minded passion. She is more drawn to cultivating and interacting with her online community of followers. She entertains the poking, insensitive and rude comments as well. The viewers of her live stream can be mean and severely judgemental, but she relies on them to make the identity she is transitioning into legible and recognized somehow, even in a dire, cruel way.
Fanni is desperate to be embraced, acknowledged, and given a position whereby she can assert herself and make herself accepted into the public domain. She laments the absence of any opportunity by which she can eke out a livelihood and is deeply aware even that is a far stretch now. Just existing with determination is under constant threat. We watch Fanni withdraw into herself and go through an immense mental toll. She confesses she does not want to live.
Laci and his friend Aranka are terrifically protective of her, swooping in with their best efforts to allay her thoughts and anxieties. Laci also gets miffed with her for being so dependent on him. He insists she finds some avenue of work. When she lands some stylist for a photo shoot, he is the one who screens the guy before giving the go-ahead to Fanni.
The filmmaker draws us into the most intimate insecurities and throbbing desires of Fanni, emphasizing her bodily want of femininity and fuller breasts while letting her articulate the pain she experiences and her impatience with the hormonal drugs. There is a striking honesty here which the film does not extend to Laci. The film veers more to Fanni and does not afford us to share a similar affective relationship with Laci. The film’s adoption of modesty in its stature, in its delineation of relationships that do not feel sufficiently expansive and grounded except Fanni’s, limits its potential.
There is a creeping slightness to the film, which works when Fanni anchors it in her unruly, impetuous dynamism, that does not enlarge our understanding of alternative communities of care and kinship. Therefore, the film does not achieve the affecting surge that it would have liked to when Fanni finds a partner and Laci keeps news of his worsening health from her. The tenderness of their relationship is palpable, but there is an acutely felt lack of context.
The repetitive scenes of Laci drilling away at construction as a metaphor for clutching onto his self-preservation do not add to the textures of the character and how we understand him after a point. Ultimately, Fairy Garden comes off as too pruned and condensed to realize the full power and richness that rests in its compelling, unusual central relationship.