It’s hard to write about films that fall into that realm of flawed and forgettable. Plenty of movies have their failings, but when you finish the film and don’t have much feeling whatsoever either way about what you just spent nearly two hours watching, it’s not always easy to pinpoint why. Perhaps the story just wasn’t engaging enough. Maybe you hadn’t related enough to the characters. Or both. At the same time, if someone asked you how the film was, you’d be hesitant to say “bad.” You’d say, “It was…n’t great,” or something else decidedly ambiguous that betrays your true feelings: it was bad.
That’s where I’m at with commercial director Vivi Friedman’s feature film debut, The Family Tree. I’m still reluctant to say bad because, while it was raw and unimaginative visually, miscast, and became ridiculous at the end, it wasn’t a poorly crafted film necessarily. By far Friedman’s reigning success was nailing that darkly comedic tone. From the opening scene where a peeping Tom high schooler accidentally hangs himself from the tree in which he’s staring into neighbors’ houses, the stage is set for some ridiculous moments handled with laughs when they could easily go the other way. And these scenes generally work. The poor bastard hangs there nearly the entire film, flies buzzing around, characters mentioning the bad smell in the front yard, yet no one notices him decomposing ten feet above their heads. And it’s funny. It brings us into the film; we want to get to know this family who lives there and has their own issues – parents cheating on each other, ignorant Evangelical son, possibly-a-slut daughter, overbearing mother-in-law. But this kitchen sink combination of indie tropes only gets us so far.
Somehow, the parts just didn’t add up. While the main actors – Dermot Mulroney and Hope Davis – are solid enough on their own in other roles, they didn’t quite gel here. Mulroney plays against type as this gray-haired, mustache-wearing hunched-over low-level management-type who gets walked all over in every aspect of his life, starting from the beginning of the day when he goes to drive his kids to school only to have his daughter usurp him in the driver’s seat and on through all other aspects of his life. Mulroney’s always likeable and remains so here although he still felt a bit wrong as Jack Burnett — technically solid, but still noticeably acting. Davis on the other hand, gives a performance fit for Desperate Housewives, not a feature film. She gets the absurdist tone but takes it too far – especially in her scene with Chi McBride that sets in motion the whole plot where she hits her head and ends up with amnesia. That coupled with some terrible musical choices by the filmmakers and we’re waiting for the commercial break instead of sinking deeper into the narrative.
Perhaps that’s what gave me such an ambivalent feeling afterward: it never felt like a movie to begin with. Given that screenwriter Mark Lisson has had a long, successful career in television as a writer/producer, it makes sense – his sensibilities never quite graduate beyond the small screen for his first foray into features. It’s not that the subject material wasn’t suitably large enough for the long-form narrative film – this felt like a sub-subpar version of American Beauty or a cousin of The Chumscrubber/Thumbsucker (were those even different movies?) – it was the structure. There were all these characters – the four in the family, the neighbor (McBride) and his son, the kid hanging in the tree, the two Evangelical buddies, the Reverend (Keith Carradine as a denim jacket-wearing, gun-toting priest is kinda awesome, actually), and the two suburban-yet-hood black kids who feel incredibly out of place yet end up being extremely necessary for Lisson’s all-threads-come-together-ridiculously ending. Up until the culmination of the second act, I was skeptical but engaged with everything going on. But then it felt like Lisson got nervous, didn’t know how to not write something with an open ending, so tied up every single narrative thread by literally throwing them all into a room together. And then the third act brings us a scene straight out of Wanted. Seriously.
Saying that it all falls apart miserably at the end would imply that everything was chugging along on track prior, but that’s not quite right either. What we’re watching here is the pilot and second episode of a sarcastic family comedy TV show slammed together with a haphazard ending tacked on to bring it all together into a 90-minute experience disguised as a feature film. And it seems like Friedman upped the ante with her less-cinematic-than-most-TV-shows look. I understand that this wasn’t a high-budget film in any respect; however, aside from the early tracking shot of the erotic-asphyxiation-gone-wrong kid and the nod to Timur Bekmambetov later on, there’s very little here to be excited about visually. While Friedman has a strong ability in keeping the overall tone consistent throughout the film and across the many performances, she simply cannot shoot a scene – the McBride/Davis sex-on-the-sink scene being the most egregious of them all. Not just because we get treated to numerous out-of-focus extreme close-ups, but also because Friedman never shows the actual event that is the hinge to the plot: Davis’ Bunnie Burnett falling off the sink and cracking her head open, leading to her not remembering after her wedding day – that includes her two kids. It could hardly be considered an action scene, but apparently it was enough to be out of Friedman’s cinematic tool chest. Other simple dialogue scenes also failed to rise above the most rudimentary pattern of wide coverage and awkward-angled close-up, cut between the two, and hope for the best.
Not all filmmakers can knock it out of the park with their debut feature. Friedman has a talent with actors and tone, so perhaps collaborating with a stronger cinematographer and a more filmic script could make for a successful sophomore effort. That is, if after this dud, she gets the chance.
The Family Tree opens in LA and NY on Friday, August 26th.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars