Suburban Desire under the Elms: The Family Tree

The week before Hurricane Irene struck, I viewed a film that certainly could have benefitted from some of that storm's gusts.

The American indie The Family Tree does, truthfully, blow about quite a bit thanks to its choice cast (e.g. Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Selma Blair, Keith Carradine, Jane Seymour), but its overabundance of inane plot lines configured by screenwriter Mark Lisson and its unfocused direction by Vivi Friedman couldn't get a kite knee-level.

The locale is Serenity, Ohio; the family is the Burnetts; and the narrator is 17-year-old gun-toting Eric (Max Theriot), who's having problems of all sorts. He even opens the film with, "Everyone has a breaking point. This is mine."

The next moment we're in the therapy office of Rachel Levy (Rachel Leigh Cook), a shrink who quickly realizes she's no match for the battling Burnetts. Mom, better known as Bunny (Davis), has focused all of her energies into raising money for charities (that she doesn't care about) and into copulating with her neighbors (who fit into all age brackets). Dad or Jack (Mulroney), since he's not getting any nookie at home, has the hots for a secretary at his company, while sister Kelly (the charismatic Britt Robertson) has developed a reputation as the Queen of Oral Sex at her high school.

If this weren't enough, a dead body is hanging from a tree next to the Burnett house, unseen; Eric falls for a disabled lesbian who desires Kelly; and Bunny has an accident mid-orgasm and partially loses her memory, thus becoming a nicer person who adores her husband. Oh, and then there are the thugs of color who have to talk to their moms mid-robberies, and a lesbian teacher who makes out with a student in the school bathroom. Stereotypes abound here, but in a manner so mishandled they unintentionally seem racist and homophobic. This is a wannabe black comedy that lacks the wit to be one.

Only Robertson and John Patrick Amedori as a mohawked boy in love rise above the material to embody full-blooded beings. As for Davis and Mulroney, who are usually splendid in whatever they take on, here they seem to be phoning in their yuks.

So in the end what we are presented with is a mildly affable comedy of familial dysfunction that wants to chide the times for being both morally and emotionally obtuse. Instead, The Family Tree winds up being little more than a film uprooted. - Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).

Sierra Club