Anita Casey-Reed
 
 
    
 
In this publicity image released by Fox Searchlight films, Brad Pitt, left, and Laramie Eppler are shown in a scene from "The Tree of Life." (Associated Press)
 
 

 
In this publicity image released by Fox Searchlight films, from left, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt are shown in a scene from "The Tree of Life." (Associated Press)
 
 

 
In this publicity image released by Fox Searchlight films, Sean Penn is shown in a scene from "The Tree of Life." (Associated Press)
 
 

When someone is nervous, the usual advice is "Just be yourself." OK, what exactly does that mean? Am I just a collection of animal instincts? Am I the result of my experiences? Are we all doomed to become a slight variation on our parents, no matter how we struggle not to be? These are the heavy type of questions usually posed by philosophers, theologians and college students. They're also the themes of the beautiful, glorious, completely overwhelming film "The Tree of Life."

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, who actually taught philosophy at MIT before turning to filmmaking in the late 1960s, "The Tree of Life" is unusual among Hollywood movies. Some Oscar contenders (it was nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography and Directing in 2012) are like a finely-detailed short story, others like a sweeping epic novel. "The Tree of Life" is more like a poem or an instrumental piece of music. Instead of giving you a plot or story, it lives in moments with the images and sounds there to evoke feelings rather than to provide information. It jumps from scene to scene (even across millions of years) and relies on the audience to take their own meaning and connections from what they see and hear.

The core of the film revolves around Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a boy and Sean Penn as an adult), the oldest of three boys growing up in a 1950s small Texas town. His father (Brad Pitt) is a man who believes that the very nature of the world is struggle -- and that it's up to each person to fight and take what he or she needs. His mother (Jessica Chastain) is a woman who believes in a life filled with grace -- that people should be kind and loving to each other and revel in the beauty of nature that fills the planet. Jack is torn between them both, especially as he enters adolescence and begins to explore life on his own.

There are many things I love about "The Tree of Life" -- how it conveys the experience of childhood, how it deals with the strange floating of memory through the mind, how both Pitt's and Chastain's performances work simultaneously as their young son's perspective and as a more nuanced adult reality, how what the boy is going through is just one small speck in the grand scheme of life on earth -- but I cannot honestly say that you will love this film. What I can guarantee, is that you will be thinking about "The Tree of Life" long after you see it.



 
Anita Casey-Reed is a member of the Cinema 100 Film Society, a volunteer for the Dakota Digital Film Festival and co-host of "Reel Retro" on Dakota Media Access. She lives in Bismarck with her husband and two children.