Patronizing and druggedly paced, “Family Tree” doesn’t seek to entertain audiences so much as it does to lecture them. A family film in name only, pic will unroll in a handful of major and farm-belt markets, where it is destined to bore both kids and adults to tears before segueing quietly to video. But pic is so impertinently civics-minded and environmentally friendly that it seems to have arrived at an oddly fortuitous moment; it could, perhaps, best be put to use as a propaganda film for those protesting the World Bank and Intl. Monetary Fund.
Helmed with little distinction by Duane Clark, “Family Tree” depicts the turmoil that erupts in a small town when it’s discovered that the impending construction of a plastics factory will require the cutting down of the historic tree known as Old Oak. For generations, Old Oak has served as an unofficial town center, where generations of kids have come of age and carved their personal history into its sprawling bark.
At first the tree’s destruction hardly registers with the townsfolk, least of all Henry Musser (Robert Forster), the contractor who helped to secure the factory deal. The town has been economically devastated by a prior plant closing and hungers to get back to work.
Fortunately for Old Oak, Musser’s youngest son, Mitch (Andy Laurence), is a loner (and burgeoning Green Party member) who thinks of the mighty tree as his only true friend and so begins an aggressive campaign to save it. He’s aided in his efforts by Larry (Cliff Robertson), the town’s beloved football hero and Korean War vet, who has just returned home for a “mysterious” purpose. A purpose that may have something to do with the fact that Larry is constantly limping, coughing and clutching his chest in pain.
The dynamics of “Family Tree” are roughly comparable to an episode of the WB’s “7th Heaven” series, interspersing the various toils to accomplish a noble humanitarian goal with a generous helping of Old Fashioned Family Values. Even the average 6-year-old will likely sniff out pic’s sanctimonious tone and be put off. Here, mottoes like “Anything worth having is worth fighting for” and “Never give up” aren’t merely implicit themes, they’re included verbatim in scribe Paul Canterna’s pedestrian dialogue.
Canterna is equally disposed to delivering all plot points via the most bold-faced exposition, but nonetheless there’s the hint of a big idea at work in the film, about the struggle to preserve history and a sense of self in the face of encroaching modernity. But it’s so difficult to take pic seriously that the idea never develops any weight. The town wherein the story unfolds is never even named, and remains as anonymous as its inhabitants — stock characters drawn with a minimum of invention. Clark steeps the film in Norman Rockwell nostalgia, but that, too, works against it, effecting an oddly antiquated atmosphere.
Expectedly, by the end of the third act, Mitch and Larry have succeeded in rallying the other citizens round to their cause, and a preposterous, happily-ever-after solution miraculously presents itself. The question of whether it is right to pursue environmental concerns at all costs is never broached, because in movies like “Family Tree,” corporate America is always insensitive and buffoonish and there’s always a swell compromise lurking around the corner.With the exception of the eminently watchable Forster and the ham-fisted Robertson, perfs are mostly undistinguished in undemanding roles.
Production value is minimal, with location lensing that curiously silhouettes the cast for a number of the interior shots. Soundtrack includes numerous up-tempo country ballads performed by Judd, Matthew Laurence and others from the popular Nashville record label owned by producers Mike Curb and Carole Curb Nemoy.