Stilted, somewhat pretentious Southern Gothic tale constructed around a quasi-autistic child protagonist, “Things That Hang From Trees” takes an almost magical realistic approach to its 1969 Florida locale. The oddball Southerners comprising Saint Augustine’s townfolk, like the disparate objects that festoon pic’s titular live oak (a toilet seat, Spanish moss, colored streamers, a beer can bird-feeder), are showcased in theatrical set pieces that don’t come sufficiently enough alive to connect up satisfactorily. General weirdness and the presence of a spacey, sexy Deborah Kara Unger as a one-woman storefront lingerie display, though, should assure “Things” a healthy cable run.
Like so many classic Southern Gothic pics, from “Night of the Hunter” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Eve’s Bayou” and “George Washington,” “Things” equates the mythic strangeness of the milieu with childish fear and wonderment.
Eight-year-old Tommy (Cooper Musgrove), mistaken as retarded by some, wanders in search of companionship. His mother (Unger), spaced out on tranquilizers, largely ignores him as he darts around her genteel sex shop.
When not flashing back to primal scenes with his abusive, mainly absent father (Ray McKinnon), Tommy recreates his victimization by hanging out with the fat school bully (Ryan Parker) who, like dad, alternately tortures and befriends him.
An even more sinister male figure lurks in the person of the town barber (Daniel von Bargen), a tortured, middle-aged religious nut obsessed with the scantily-clad Unger.
As sex and violence bubble beneath the surface, Tommy realizes his avowed dream to watch the town’s anniversary fireworks from atop the lighthouse. When he descends the next morning, however, he finds his world changed forever. Film was scribed, first as a novella then as a screenplay, by Aaron Louis Tordini, the former lead singer/songwriter of Dandelion Wine and a native of Saint Augustine. Though shot on location, pic’s under populated setting feels curiously non-specific, as does its time-frame.
Tyro Israeli-American helmer Ido Mizrahy and his producers have deep legit theatrical ties, and “Things” often feels like an imperfectly transposed play; certainly, nothing ever seems to extend beyond the frame-lines in the methodically staged succession of tableaux that poetically define each character.
Neither adopting Tommy’s p.o.v. nor allowing the other characters enough autonomy to create multiple perspectives, pic lacks an overarching aesthetic drive and floats stagnantly in its own frame of reference.
Always exotically alien, Unger brings her own unique brand of somnolent, broody sensuality to bear, splayed half-naked in her shop window one moment, and the next moment chatting cozily with an overweight housewife seeking a sexy negligee.
Von Bargen is equally impressive as the twitchily neurotic bible-thumper, while Laila Robins as the gold-hearted diner owner, and Peter Gerety as the kindly town drunk do their level best to humanize their stubbornly archetypal good guy roles. But Musgrove’s Tommy comes across less as a flesh-and-blood kid than as a blank slate for a future scenarist’s memoirs.
Tech credits are pro.