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Movie review of Family Tree

Updated:
(Reviewer gives it a B)

With its opening shot of a massive oak tree and its multiple branches stretching like arms for the heavens, "Family Tree" taps into potent imagery. Is it the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge? Is it Ygdrasil, the tree of Norse mythology that supports the universe and has the source of wisdom in one of the three wells at its base?

In the end, this story about young boy's efforts to save a tree from bulldozers shows how his fight brings new life to himself, his family and his community - without ever making overt reference to these powerful stories.

But the shadows of these images linger in the mind. And the satisfying, if sometimes slow-moving G-rated story reaches for an audience similar to that for "My Dog Skip" - people looking for insights and understanding about the pain of young boys who don't seem to fit in, about sons struggling with fathers, of how unexpected angels can help point them to a journey of going where they need to go.

At the heart of Paul Canterna's script is a boy, Mitch (Andrew Lawrence), nicknamed "Mess" because he's the kid who always seems to "mess up" in sports in a town that doesn't acknowledge value in anything else. Unlike his brother, high school quarterback Mark (Matthew Lawrence), he's the last to be picked for any team.

Even his father, Henry Musser (Robert Forster) doesn't understand why Mess can't be more like his brother.

Where Willie in "My Dog Skip" finds his way in the world through his friendship with his dog, Mess finds solace in an old oak tree to whom he confides his troubles.

Then Mess' father gets a developing contract for a factory that would necessitate cutting down the tree. Eventually Mess gets the idea of fighting back from a stranger named Larry (Cliff Robertson), who has a history with the town that unravels through the course of the story.

As Mess sticks up for the tree, he forces a confrontation with his father that causes the two to communicate for the first time.

Director Duane Clark's direction, while a bit on the slow side, lingers lovingly on the beauty of the tree and the poignancy of the family interactions. There's no physical violence, but he frames a moment between father and son that throbs with intensity.

As the father starts to take credit for telling his son to fight for what he believes in, Mess gives him a look sharp enough to draw blood. "No," he says to his father. "You told Mark that. Larry told me."

Academy-Award winner Robertson provides a compelling anchor for the story. Mr. Foster never loses touch with the dad's essential decency - even when he does wrong, he does it for the right reasons. Naomi Judd radiates warmth and wisdom as the mom. And Andy and Matt Lawrence - real-life brothers - bring a sharp edge of reality to this story of how brothers at war can ultimately learn to love each other not just in spite but because of their differences.

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