Generational values clash in a Senegalese town in “Tall as the Baobab Tree,” American director Jeremy Teicher’s quietly eloquent first fiction feature. Based on real-life situations and more than competently thesped by the villagers of Sinthion Mbadane themselves, the film never takes sides, maintaining a remarkably sympathetic balance between the ancient survivalist traditions of the elders and the aspirations of their educated offspring. “Baobab” also avoids feeling forced or artificially picturesque, combining the artlessness of documentary with the aesthetic unity of fiction. But its simple story may prove too uneventful even for arthouse auds.
Coumba (Dior Ka), the first member of her family to be educated, has just successfully passed her exams when her older brother, Sileye (Alpha Dia), falls from a baobab tree, seriously injuring his leg. Teicher establishes the film’s city/country, education/tradition dichotomy early on, cutting between scenes of Coumba, walking to her urban school with her visiting younger sister, Debo (Oumoul Ka), and shots of Sileye, gracefully clambering around the baobab tree, cutting tender shoots for the livestock below.
With Sileye’s leg requiring expensive procedures, the children’s father (Mouhamed Diallo) dispatches Coumba to watch the herd, and arranges to marry 11-year-old Debo to a rich man, but Coumba and Debo both recoil at the idea. Debo had hoped to follow in her big-sister’s footsteps, and Coumba, with a student’s idealism, believes she can easily land work to earn enough for Sileye’s treatments. But when she finally finds employment as a maid, the pay doesn’t meet her lofty expectations. Meanwhile, her father interviews prospective bridegrooms, and her mother (Mboural Dia) tries to reconcile her daughters to tradition.
Teicher treats the cultural split between generations as a constantly mediated middle ground, where respect demands compromise on both sides. Having previously lived in the village while shooting an earlier documentary, he easily hooks into the differing rhythms of the rural areas, with their lack of running water or electricity, and the city, with its conveniences but somewhat alienating work, careful to show intrinsic value in each.
Chris Collins’ serene lensing highlights the family’s closeness and its connection to the environment, while Jay Wadley’s African harp score adds to the pic’s authenticity.