The world of modern American independent cinema is one with both many fans, and many critics. Often seen as either pretentious art house fair or broad, quirk-centric relationship-based dramadies, when films like Vivi Friedman’s The Family Tree pop up, comparisons to the works of auteurs like Wes Anderson or Jason Reitman are hard to both live up to, and also beat.
Seemingly cut from the same cloth that has bred films like The Darjeeling Limited or Juno, The Family Tree is the latest feature from Friedman, and features a top notch cast that does what they can with a relatively cliché script. However, the results are quite as memorable as either of its aforementioned brethren.
The Family Tree follows the story of a husband and wife, along with their two polar opposite children, as they deal with what life has dealt them. A God-fearing, gun loving son and a cheating wife; a lazy husband and an ever changing daughter round out this foursome known as a family. When the mother suffers a blow to the head and begins to forget things, each member’s life begins to unravel, until the film’s conclusion. Take the dysfunctional family troubles found within The Royal Tenenbaums and toss in the witty stylings of something like Juno, blend, and you have something resembling The Family Tree.
Starring Dermot Mulroney, Christina Hendricks, Hope Davis, Keith Carradine, Brittany Robertson and Max Thieriot, the film’s cast is its greatest proponent. Davis gives the film’s greatest performance, which is the closest that this film gets to crafting a true, flesh and blood, character. Hendricks is used as nothing more than an entity of lust, with Carradine being allowed to be, well, Keith Carradine, just with a penchant for Jesus and guns. He’s an absolute hoot to watch on screen, and really gives a lot of entertainment to this otherwise dry film. Mulroney is a total caricature, as are Robertson and Thieriot. Their performances are fine, but when looking at them as anything more than physical manifestations of specific character traits, it’s hard to truly get behind their stories.
Visually, this film doesn’t quite hit the mark. The film is very much a simplistic film visually, but when Friedman allows her camera to be a bit more inventive, the film truly thrives. There are a few really fantastic moments here aesthetically, but the film’s love of quirk really bleeds over into its visual style. From its uninteresting opening credits to the use of a high school student’s tragic demise as nothing more than a bit of set dressing, the film lacks a sense of truth and depth, particularly in its style.
And that lack of truth is what ails the film the worst. When it comes to relationship dramas, or comedies, one must find the core relationships both engaging, and also either dramatic or comedic. Not only does The Family Tree have very few core relationships that are at all engaging (save for the gun-toting minister and his youngling), but they feel a bit false. I find this to be a bigger issue with regards to its screenplay than the film as a whole, but it makes for a film that really falls flat and feels far emptier than its brethren at the theaters this year.
Overall, The Family Tree isn’t truly a bad film. Entertaining to a point, the film never left me feeling bored or cheated out of a specific amount of time. However, the film did leave me feeling empty. The antithesis to the ideal bit of reward coming from a piece of filmmaking. Shallow characters dealing with horrible things occurring in their lives, without any sense of stakes and even less true drama. Save for a few visual flourishes that make the film worth viewing as soon as possible, this is one best saved for a late night Netflix rental.