April 29, 2006 -- Growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s was tough enough, but growing up in a situation where most of your immediate family members die, and at the same time belonging to a scorned-upon racial minority with few legal rights made it doubly difficult. That is the situation faced by Little Tree in this movie. The fact that the movie manages to be mostly upbeat is more than one might expect from such a situation.
Ten-year-old Little Tree (played by Joseph Ashton) goes to live with his grandfather (James Cromwell of “The Sum of All Fears”) and grandmother, (Tantoo Cardinal of “Legends of the Fall”) a full-blooded Cherokee Indian in the southern United States. High in the mountains, Little Tree learns the fine art of making moonshine and learns woodcraft from his grandparents and family friend Willow John (Graham Greene of “Thunderheart”). He learns the history and ways of his people before state welfare officials take him away to a boarding school for Native Americans. Little Tree's removal from his home is the result of a family dispute between Little Tree and his aunt. Little Tree's parents died.
Although Little Tree's grandfather is white, he has fully adopted the native ways. He teaches Little Tree valuable lessons about how to earn a living, how to grow food without overtaxing the land, how to get along with people, how to be at peace with life and death. The sum of all these things is called “the way.” The pace of the movie is slow and the emotions are generally low-key, but it is a watchable, enjoyable film.
The genesis of the story is unusual. The screenplay is based on a book by Forrest Carter which was originally sold as non-fiction. It is, in fact, fiction, and Carter's real first name is Asa. Carter is a well-known segregationist. The author's chosen first name of Forrest is reportedly taken from Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan (as was the case with the fictional character Forrest Gump in the film of the same name). Regardless of Carter's motives for writing the book, it remains popular. I don't know if the movie follows the book very closely or not, but it is a compelling, mostly positive story, despite Little Tree's bad luck, told mainly from a child's point of view. This film rates a B.
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