If you have a pet — especially if a dog — you know that it talks to you each day, and constantly. So what about a tree? “The Tree”, a sincere, tender family drama directed by Julie Bertuccelli, illustrates that trees, beyond their natural functions, have something more profound to say, and that the departed speak through them. Lyrical, poetic and absorbing, “The Tree” celebrates the joys of characters’ convictions about ideas, and relishes their exactitude. The women are certain. The men are on unstable footing. “The Tree” opened today at the Opera Plaza Cinemas.
Propelled by sunny visions and rustic splendor, Ms. Bertuccelli’s film is set in Australia, on a farm owned by the O’Neill family, headed by Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The O’Neills are a content and loving clan. When the patriarch Peter (Aden Young) has a sudden heart attack the family’s idyllic world changes. Dawn’s precocious eight-year-old daughter Simone has a strong intuition however, that her father has not left the earth; in fact she is quite sure that he’s still in or near it, specifically in that huge tree standing just yards away from their rickety family home.
The tree on the O’Neill farm is in danger of completely encroaching and destroying their house, and a county ordinance mandates its removal. Of course the tree’s ardent protectors will cling to it with the passion and fervor that gives some license to lobby at them a flippant term that describes environmentalists.
Ms. Bertuccelli (“Since Otar Left”) neatly captures a luminous, sweet family and generates warmth in visions that are beautiful and symbolic. Based on Judy Pascoe’s novel “Our Father Who Art In The Tree”, “The Tree” does well on a narrative level what the non-narrative “The Tree Of Life” does on a complex one: investigate the meaning of fathers in the lives of their children, and the idea that children are thinking about their parents more deeply than those parents may realize. Ms. Bertuccelli’s film uses less grandeur and stylistic strokes than Terrence Malick’s superb film, but “The Tree” is no less meaningful or relevant as a family drama.
Instead of through the eyes of a troubled, tormented son, Ms. Bertuccelli (who also wrote the screenplay based on an original script by Elizabeth J. Mars) centers this drama through Dawn’s daughter Simone, superbly acted by first-time feature film actress Morgana Davies. In a year of fine performances by teen or pre-teen actors — Jonah Bobo in “crazy, stupid, love.”, Hunter McCracken in “The Tree Of Life”, José Julián in “A Better Life” and both Joe Courtney and Elle Fanning in “Super 8” among others — Miss Davies makes a memorable impression with her fearless debut work. She’s neither pining nor preening for the audience’s belief in her commitment to her character, and her convictions about Simone’s feelings are real. It’s an assured, confident performance.
“The Tree” however, diverges from its melodic flow with the fire-and-brimstone theatrics melodramas are made of. Regardless of the book’s themes and occurrences, Ms. Bertuccelli’s film is above the kinds of diversions that creep or crash into the film’s climax. Up until that point “The Tree” is earnest, sincere and lovely, though occasionally obvious. There’s clearly a spiritual realm at work, and the story belabors its climax when economy would have better suited it. Even so, “The Tree” doesn’t exalt its characters’ heroics even when they are righteous. The director’s confidence in her principals is amplified by the actors’ impressive performances, especially that of Miss Davies. “The Tree” exquisitely journeys into rebirth, replenishment and the roots of family and its solid foundations. Its heart is boundless, humane and joyful, and I was enriched by its compassion and grace.
Amazingly, Ms. Gainsbourg, great again here, doesn’t cast her usual, achingly potent emotional power and naturalness over this film, or the eruptive, fertile quality in characters she’s played in other films. As Dawn, she’s never more alive than when she climbs up into that big tree. Something is calling her, and the scenes at night of Ms. Gainsbourg exploring the tree in ways Dawn may never have prior, are special. No matter what, Ms. Gainsbourg’s work always speaks volumes, as do the film characters’ nature-evoking or biblical-sounding names: Dawn and Peter, but it’s all young Miss Davies’ stage — and tree — and she doesn’t ever let go.
–At the Opera Plaza Cinemas.
With: Marton Csokas, Christian Byers, Tom Russell, Gabriel Gotting, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Gillian Jones, Zoe Boe.
“The Tree” is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but contains some violence, sensuality and sexual content. The film’s running time is one hour and 40 minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s joltleft.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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