By Elias Savada.
No doubt the film is somewhat stifled by its technical faults (at least in my online viewing). The Family Tree offers up a spiritual dish in a different setting, probably outside your comfort zone.”
Panamanian indie filmmaker Jorge Ameer’s name (and initials) is all over the place in this English-language feature. Just as the opening credits are finishing, you’ve seen it a half-dozen times, as part of his multi-hyphenate contribution to The Family Tree. Producer, director, writer, editor, special appearance by. It doesn’t mention that he’s the film’s biggest cheerleader as well. So, he can take the credit, and the blame, for this heartfelt yet overwrought exercise that ultimately carries this character-driven story into sentimental soap opera territory by the time it’s all over some 131 minutes later.
There are plenty of films that fly under the radar. The Family Tree is one of them. I’m not familiar with Ameer’s other work, but he’s been in show business for decades, including stints as a story analyst for Richard Gere before becoming an actor, festival director and programmer, distributor, exhibitor at the historic Vogue Theatre in Hollywood, promoter (in spades), founder of the International Gay Film “Glitter” Awards, and also a director of numerous short films, and about a dozen features (since 1994). He has worn many entertainment hats and likes to think he has a progressiveness to his work and ideas. We all should be so lucky!
The film’s rudimentary photography and occasionally muddled sound were annoying, and I had to strain to make out the dialogue through some of the scenes. The film’s first sound mixer was jettisoned and his replacement offered better quality control, but some shots were not fully repaired. The online preview doesn’t do the film any justice either. Ameer told me it’s best to watch in a theater with the film’s new Dolby mix. Covid-19 put the brakes on that, at least for now. You can rent or buy it through Amazon Prime.
It’s a moderate distraction from the story. Channeling a bit of It’s a Wonderful Life, the story has some angelic parameters, albeit never as the spirits we’ve come to experience in films like Capra’s. In The Family Tree, the angel is Roy Bacchus (Michael Joseph Nelson), a down-on-his-luck undocumented alien adrift in Panama, without family, tossed out by his girlfriend, and doing piecemeal work as a message delivery person. He arrives at the apartment of the mother of Victor Gardel (Keith Roenke), dressed in a Santa Claus costume, to recite Victor’s birthday poem to Victor’s best friend (once, just once, with benefits) Alina Giselle (Anais Lucia). A friendship is born, and then a relationship, as circumstances find Roy a guest in Victor’s apartment, then his husband (in order to solve that illegal immigrant status issue – a gay twist on an old theme), then his lover. It’s never overplayed, and that introduction to the three characters does show Ameer’s ability to frame his subjects well, as Victor comes into focus behind Alina.
Victor, living adequately off some family money, prefers his low echelon day job as an animal rescuer. Prone to moments of depression, he finds that the homeless Roy is another stray in his life, hungry for food, shelter, and companionship. Over Chinese take-out, they bond further, but that symbolic fortune cookie? You KNOW it’s going to have a pithy saying. So, yes, there’s a formulaic approach and, later in the film, that tactic ventures into a tad too much into soap opera melodrama, one involving the three principal players, and a fourth about to enter the picture.
And because Victor believes in fate (and apparently so does Ameer, with his small film already winning 29 festival awards) this Christmas tale offers some nostalgia, plenty of cheer, and a dash of feel-good LGBTQ vibe.
For me, who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, the soundtrack was too intrusive with holiday cheer, but that’s the bah, humbug in me.
At over two hours, the film could have used another round of editing to tighten up the story and it’s laid-back pacing. Too many somber, often musical, interludes that offer little to move this project along. Like walking in a park or watching dogs frolic. There’s a fantasy fashion show, a barebones Kubrick-esque sidebar, that offers some amusing costumes but little else. Ameer seemingly wants to explore every detail in the relationship (he thinks the movie is too short), first in the platonic relationship between Victor and Roy, their civil union on Christmas Eve, then the jingle of role relationships between the men and Alina. It is nice to see the two male characters grow into this most unexpected couple, and the dialogue rings most true in these intimate and heartfelt moments. Their excursion into same-sex life is actually very subtle and enjoyable, whether you’re gay or not.
Fifteen minutes into The Family Tree‘s second hour follows the addition of Alina into the mix, which happens after Victor gets into a shouting match with his obstinate, controlling, businessman of a father, with whom he somehow handles some obscure family investments. As for dad, all he wants from Victor is a grandson.
No doubt the film is somewhat stifled by its technical faults (at least in my online viewing). The Family Tree offers up a spiritual dish in a different setting, probably outside your comfort zone. Distractions aside, some of you should enjoy this LGBTQ Central American love story.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).