Making the Grades
Nothing seems to encourage unconventional filmmaking like the theme of death. Add a contemplative approach to the origin of the universe and you get The Tree of Life, a non-linear look at generations of a family dealing with the untimely demise of one of their own.
Artistic camera angles, handheld cinematography, pensive stances and meditative ramblings are interspersed with the portrayals of a flickering flame. Trying to keep up with the endlessly jumping storyline and the inventive images of the earth’s creation takes work. You’ll either love it or hate it. Or maybe I just wasn’t up to the needed effort.
The film begins in the 1950s with the arrival of a letter announcing the death of the son of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain). Despite his commitment to living a good life, this is just another setback endured by Mr. O’Brien who also faces a job loss and career disappointments. Making peace with his lot in life proves difficult.
The story then moves to the present day where the couple’s other son (Sean Penn), now grown, works as an architect (though Jack seems to spend more time looking out of windows and musing over his lost brother than designing). In flashback, we watch the O’Brien siblings grow up in a home with a strict and driven father and a gentle mother. Expressions of love are more of a requirement than a heartfelt demonstration.
As the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) reaches adolescence, he rebels against his Dad’s tough attitudes and his mom’s mild-mannered nurturing. He sneaks into a woman’s home and steals her lingerie. He also vandalizes another neighbor’s property. But this loss of innocence haunts him into adulthood. In a final sequence, the adult Jack wanders across a rocky landscape in a dreamlike manner where he is reconnected with people from his past with hopes of finding closure.
Without a definitive direction and offering limited dialogue, viewers will have to read their own meaning into this unusual depiction of life’s tragedies. The productions decision to punctuate these hardships with earth’s birth and demise will also make this entertainment option more likely to appeal only to a limited audience.
Release Date: 27 May 2011 (Limited)
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Tree of Life.
How does Mr. O’Brien’s anger impact his family? How does he let his personal and career disappointments affect his relationships with other people? Why does Jack feel like his father is a hypocrite? Is Mrs. O’Brien’s approach to parenting any more effective?
How can childhood experiences affect a person in adulthood? What enables a person to move on with life after suffering setbacks, tragedies or disappointments?
What statement do you think the filmmaker is trying to make with his depiction of the earth’s creation and ending?