Watching a family grapple with the death of their father/husband, whose spirit may or may not live on in the form of an enormous tree that neighbors their home, sounds like it could be a snooze-inducing exercise in pretension. But The Tree, opening Aug. 26 in Atlanta a little more than a year after closing the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is a surprisingly gripping tale that cuts deep.
Within the film’s efficient first 10 minutes, French writer/director Julie Bertuccelli establishes a close bond between Peter (Aden Young, making a powerful impact in limited screen time), his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his daughter Simone (Morgana Davies). While driving his truck one day, he has a heart attack at the wheel, and his car comes to rest at the foot of the giant fig tree that lies a few feet from his home.
As you’d expect, the family takes it hard. Dawn spends most of her days sleeping and neglecting both her kids and the household chores. Simone fares better, finding unexpected solace in the mysterious fig tree, which she believes whispers to her in her dad’s voice. Before long, she’s built a shrine to her beloved dad in the tree and visits regularly to chat with him. Dawn, unsure of what to make of all this, develops a bond of her own with the tree.
Gradually she attempts to move on with her life, landing a job at a local plumbing shop and entering into a romantic relationship. This doesn’t sit well with Simone, and the mother-daughter friction comes to a head when the fig tree’s roots become increasingly unruly, creating landscaping problems that merit its cutting down.
There’s much more, but plot synopsis doesn’t really do The Tree justice. This is one of those films that never strikes a false note, boasting well-written, flawed characters who don’t do stupid things without reason. Bertuccelli’s outstanding screenplay, based on Judy Pascoe’s book Our Father Who Art in the Tree, knows how to mix well-written dialogue with long silences to strong effect.
The acting matches the writing. Hollywood has served up plenty of superobnoxious kids mourning loved ones, and given her character’s occasional tantrums and frequent spiritual musings, Davies could easily have become the latest addition to the annoying child actor club. But under the guidance of Bertuccelli, she makes her character believable and relatable.
Likewise for Gainsbourg, who navigates her character’s wildly veering range of emotions with skill and depth. The supporting players, including Marton Csokas as Dawn’s employer and Christian Byers as Dawn’s eldest son, also register strongly.
As you might guess given its title, nature is a forceful character of its own in The Tree, and Bertuccelli and her team capture the Australian setting beautifully, from the titular tree to frogs who invade the family plumbing system to epic wide shots of the Outback. Bertuccelli never stretches for meaning, but The Tree gives you plenty to ponder regarding the relationship between mankind, nature, family and the afterlife.
“The Tree” opens in Atlanta on Aug. 26 at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema.
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