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The Independent Critic

Joicie Appell, Laura Kirk, Paul Fellers, Christie Courville, Caroline Kelley, and Sydney Hendricks
Stephen Wallace Pruitt
Mary Settle Pruitt, Stephen Wallace Pruitt
94 Mins.

 "The Tree" Screens at Indy's Heartland Film Festival 
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I'm a 52-year-old living with spina bifida. It may not sound like the age of 52 is necessarily one's twilight years, but the truth is that I'm a good 30 years past my life expectancy. 

The truth is that I can feel it. The end is not that far away. Morbid? Nah, not really. It's not that I want the end. I don't. It's just that I know the truth. The end happens sometime for all of us. For me, it's likely to be sooner rather than later. 

I think about my legacy a lot. 

I hope and I pray that I die doing something I love rather than rotting away alone in some nursing home or hospital bed. 

While I've had my share of bad times, if I died today I'd have to be grateful that there's been a whole lot more good than bad in my life. 

For now, I just want to be as independent as possible. I just want to love as much as possible. I just want to feel like when I get done with this life that I've managed to make someone else's life better along the way. 

That's all I really want. 

I identified a lot with 88-year-old Dorothy Thorp (Joicie Appell), the central character in Stephen Wallace Pruitt's latest film, The Tree. A widow with a cat she loves and neighbors, Marge (Laura Kirk) and John (Paul Fellers), who care deeply about her and watch over her in the kind of way that seems to only happen in smalltown America. 

So, you can imagine their surprise AND concern when Dorothy announces plans to travel from her rural home in Warmego, Kansas to visit a friend in her childhood home of Terre Haute, Indiana. Torn between combatting their own sense of ageism and their rather overwhelming belief that Dorothy is simply incapable of completing such a trip on her own, Marge and John hesitantly offer their support while agreeing to delay a call to Dorothy's out-of-town daughter who is sure not to agree with her ambitious plans. 

Heading out on "the National Road," the historic name for U.S. 40, Dorothy begins a journey that is everything she never expects it to be yet everything she needs to be in The Tree, screening as part of the Indiana Spotlight during the 2017 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. Pruitt, a native Hoosier, has crafted a quietly remarkable film that captures the essence of life in the heartland and the essence of life for this beautiful, endearing, gently wise and determined widow played to consummate perfection by former Guiding Light soap opera actress Joicie Appell. Appell, now 89-years-old herself and acting since she the age of 16, is tackling her first leading role in a feature film here and it's hard not to draw comparisons to the recently departed Harry Dean Stanton, whose death this year at the age of 91 came just as the star was attracting Oscar buzz for his masterful leading work in the film Lucky. 

While Appell's work as Dorothy is less likely to attract Oscar buzz, rest assured that hers is a performance here that deserves to be, and will be, remembered. While it's tempting to compare Appell's work to that of Stanton, the film actually reminded me much more of David Lynch's rather remarkable The Straight Story, a film that radiated innocence and wonder and humanity and was pretty much everything you could want a film to be. 

The Tree made me laugh. The Tree made me cry. The Tree made me reflect on my own life choices and journeys and destinations. The Tree made me think that I want to be Dorothy Thorp when I grow up and when I grow old. 

Along her way, Dorothy encounters a number of different souls, some broken and torn by life and others simply holding on until they can just snag that one little break that allows them to live a little bit better today than they did yesterday. 

For some, Dorothy will be that miracle. For others, Dorothy will inspire others to become that miracle. 

Having viewed films by Pruitt before, I marvel at his growth as a filmmaker here in creating a film that is confident, patient and so beautifully constructed that you can't help but become immersed in Dorothy's journey. Lensing work by Pruitt and Michael Lopez is simply marvelous, while Randy Bonifield's original music serves as a perfect companion for the film. 

While The Tree is very much Appell's film, the film benefits greatly from its terrific ensemble cast. Laura Kirk exudes warmth and smalltown compassion as Marge, while Christie Courville and Sarah McGuire both shine as women Dorothy encounters as she makes her way to Terre Haute. In what amounts to being a brief appearance, Kip Niven is truly unforgettable as Wade Garrison, a way down on his luck Vietnam vet whose path Dorothy crosses. 

The very simple truth is that there's almost nothing I didn't love about The Tree, a gentle whisper of a film that tackles important issues involving aging and independence yet does so in a way that is remarkably universal and deeply intimate. Inspired by an actual friendship between his mother and her best friend, Pruitt has truly created a gentle, unforgettable work of wonder. 

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic