|The Education of Little Tree
THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE is based on a 1986 book
by Forest Carter that was briefly at the center of controversy. First
publicized as a non-fiction memoir, it was later discovered to be
a fictional work by a former speechwriter for George Wallace. The
author may or may not have had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Nevertheless, this gentle tale of an orphaned, half-Cherokee
and his instruction into the ways of his people achieved best-seller
status. It seemingly posed a challenge to filmmakers, but writer-director
Richard Friedenberg, who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay
adaptation of another difficult book A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT,
took on the challenge. That he has succeeded is in no small measure
to ten-year old Joseph Ashton who portrays Little Tree.
Of American Indian descent, and possessing large, expressive
eyes and a shock of dark hair, Ashton is in virtually every scene of
the film. His Little Tree grows from a shy to self-possessed youth.
The titular education comes at the hands of his white grandfather
who has adopted Native American ways (played by James Cromwell)
and his Indian grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal). Helping is a shaman,
the mystical Willow John (nicely limned by Graham Greene). That
young Mr. Ashton shares the screen and holds his own against these
veterans is a tribute to his talent.
Friedenberg has not strayed far from the template that made
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT a pleasant experience. There's the
requisite voice-over narration by the adult Little Tree and both film
are set in the same Depression-era time frame. Both also feature
glorious photography that functions as a character in the story. Making
his debut, director of photography Anastas Michos captures the natural
beauty and also gives theIndian school where Little Tree is sent in
the film's second half a distinctive look. (This section, where the
child is taken from his guardians and sent to a boarding school is
perhaps the weakest part of the story. It owes more than a passing
debt to both Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, down to the sickly
schoolmate, but Ashton's performance that carries these sequences.
Just like A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, this is a slow, deliberate
film that requires you give yourself to its gentle rhythms. But if you
do, you'll get as much of an education as Little Tree.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.