In rural Queensland, Australia, Peter, a father of four suffers a fatal heart attack while driving and hits the enormous tree next to his house. Soon, his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and 8-year-old daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) sense his spirit emanating from the tree. Rather than anthropomorphize the tree, director Julie Bertuccelli wisely uses a more mystical approach–the tree becomes a safe haven for Dawn and Simone to bask in and engage with its newfound Peter-ness. They talk to it as if they were communicating with him, but to the viewer it’s less a fantasy come to life than a chance for the family to continue their grieving process in a way that’s therapeutic and touching, but not maudlin. Conflict arises, however, when the tree begins to overtake the house–root growth underneath blocks the plumbing, vines begin to obscure the exterior and branches start not-so-randomly falling into certain people’s bedrooms.

Although it neatly executes a potentially dippy premise, the film does not hold together as well in its screenplay (adapted from a novel). A few early scenes following Peter’s death reek of tired melodrama and awkward dialogue and an attempt to make a nosy neighbor into a villain adds little weight to the main story. Fortunately, THE TREE exhibits a strong sense of space, not only in its expansive, massive titular object but also in the family’s lived-in, distinct home and its richly drawn and photographed surrounding landscapes. Morgana Davies is also pretty terrific as Simone–she has that same balance of ingenuity and precociousness as Anna Paquin did way back in THE PIANO. And with an always game Gainsbourg anchoring the cast, you’ve got a charming, (if uneven) slice of down-under magic realism that thankfully does not overdo the magic part.

Score (out of 10): 7

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