Handsomely produced, “The Education of Little Tree,” Richard Friedenberg’s feature directorial debut, offers a tenderly compassionate, highly evocative chronicle of the turbulent childhood of a Cherokee orphan during the Depression.
Pic admirably captures the distinctive lifestyle of American Indians and their struggle against racism, but it’s too earnest and elegiac by the commercial standards of today’s teen and family fare. Paramount will have to take an aggressive approach in marketing this worthy family drama, the message of which is still very much relevant.
Intended as a record of what has been lost in the cruel eradication of Native American culture over the last century, “The Education of Little Tree” serves as an urgent reminder of the need to educate young Americans about the country’s diverse racial minorities and their subcultures.
Protagonist is 8-year-old Little Tree (Joseph Ashton), who has lost both his father and mother. Resisting his aunt’s efforts to raise him, he chooses to go to his grandparents, Indian Granma (played by the beautifully regal Tantoo Cardinal) and white Granpa (James Cromwell). Under their wings, he is exposed to the magical beauty of the Smoky Mountains and the folkloristic wisdom of the Cherokee way of life.
Living high in the hills, in a modest two-room cabin, Little Tree’s warm and pragmatic grandparents tutor him in reading, math and other basic skills. Additional guidance comes from Willow John (Graham Green), a mysterious healer who takes pride in conveying the history of the Cherokee nation to his eager pupil.
Since the characters are laconic and not emotionally demonstrative, film’s first section is static, relying heavily on visuals and sounds. The story picks up some necessary steam when the local authorities discover the moonshine still that provides the family’s only income. Reported to the state welfare department, Granma and Granpa are forced to send the boy to the Notched Gap Indian School.
At the rigid institution, Little Tree is stripped of his Indian name and subjected to the cruel prejudice of the school’s officials. A further degradation occurs when his frank answer to a teacher’s query results in physical punishment. Failing to understand what he has done wrong, he’s locked in a tiny attic until he admits his “mistake.”
As scripter and director, Friedenberg, whose screenplay for “A River Runs Through It” received an Oscar nomination, contrasts the brutality of ignorant authorities with the importance of familial love and tradition. Friedenberg structures the story as a boy’s rite-of-passage journey toward manhood, one that is as much physical as it is emotional. Set in the 1930s, saga adds another panel to the understanding of the inevitably painful identity crisis of American Indians, recorded onscreen in films such as “Hombre” and “Little Big Man,” in which the protagonists go back and forth from the Indian to white civilization.
Cromwell brings strength and wisdom to his role, and Cardinal infuses Granma with dignity and grace. As the healer, Greene displays his unique blend of charisma and humor. In the lead, Ashton holds his own with the adult thesps.
Since target audience is children, pic could use a trimming of 10 to 15 minutes, particularly in the first hour, to maximize the emotional impact of its story.