“The Tree” is pretty much what you’d expect from a story about an 88-year-old widowed grandmother road tripping across the Midwest to visit a childhood friend: it’s saccharine. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile piece of art film.
First and foremost, Overland Park-based married filmmakers Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt’s film is a testament to the value of local, amateur filmmaking. It also reminded me that I needed to call my grandma.
Dorothy (Joicie Appell) is an 88-year-old widowed grandmother who takes a solo road trip from Wamego, Kansas, to her hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, to visit her lifelong friend Pat. Dorothy isn’t unhappy in Wamego, but it’s not quite home to her anymore. Her family lives in Iowa, and most of her friends have passed away. She’s mostly alone, apart from her cat and caring neighbors.
Long into the twilight years of her life, Dorothy decides to see her hometown one last time. During her journey, she takes in her weathered Midwestern surroundings with a mix of awe and sorrow, and changes a few lives along the way.
“The Tree” had a budget of only $60,000 and was shot in Kansas with the help of the Kansas City Film Commission. It picked up the Audience Choice Award at the Kansas City FilmFest last year.
Director Stephen and screenwriter Mary manage to eke out every bit of sentimentality from their story. But Appell deserves just as much credit for her grandmotherly performance. That’s not to dismiss how convincing she is in the role — she plays Dorothy as a woman who is grateful for the life she’s had, but who might wish to go back and do a few things over. She delivers every monologue, no matter how banal (and a few of them are heavy in banality), with enough sincerity and sweetness to make you believe every word. It doesn’t hurt that Appell has a classic downhome grandma look, complemented by a striking pair of blue eyes.
A supporting cast of mostly nameless Midwesterners, including a few Jayhawks, fleshes out the film’s tone: University lecturer Laura Kirk gives a thoughtful performance as Dorothy’s concerned neighbor. Recent graduate Cedric Houle appears on screen toward the end as a patient gas station attendant who helps Dorothy use her cell phone.
The film is as much a love letter to the Midwest as it is a reminder to appreciate every experience life has given you, good or bad — not exactly a groundbreaking idea, but revolutionary isn’t really what the film is going for. It’s as pleasant a movie experience as one is likely to have this summer.
Liberty Hall will be screening the film on April 22 at 2pm. Tickets are available here.