Overview: An exploration of “Tree People,” or the small community of Christmas tree salespeople who populate the streets of New York City around Christmastime. XLrator Media; 2016; Not Rated; 82 minutes.
A Rambling Aside: For the twelve or so years my family lived in Bucks County, right outside of Philadelphia, my father and sister had a yearly ritual. Every Thanksgiving Eve they would catch a train to New York City, watch the big balloons inflate for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and walk the streets until morning. They would always invite me, but I never went. I simply didn’t care that much for New York; if there wasn’t a fancy steakhouse or a Broadway show waiting on the other end of the New Jersey Transit line, I could take or leave the Big Apple. But my, how times have changed. My father, a pastor, was called to a church in perpetually sunny South Florida. My sister now travels the world as a cruise ship photographer—as per her Instagram page, her last port of call was in Indonesia. And me? I’m the one who now lives in New York. I say all this as a rambling introduction to my point: for the first time ever my parents will have Thanksgiving with an empty nest.
The Cardinal Critical Sin: Now, we film critics sometimes get advance screeners for films for us to review. It’s implicitly understood that we’re not supposed to share these screeners with anybody. But I decided to break this rule one time for Jon Reiner and Brad Rothschild’s Tree Man, a documentary about François, a “Tree Man” who makes a living by traveling from his home in Québec to sell Christmas trees on the streets of New York City. For weeks he lives in his van, nicknamed “Elvis,” and chat with his family over Skype. But it’s still a hard life: the work is tough, demanding, and no video phone call can make up for his missing Christmas with his family year after year.
Tree Man uses François as a narrative compass to explore the whole subculture of New York “Tree People.” Some interesting patterns emerge. The Tree People become close friends with their yearly clientele, in some cases even achieving legendary status as local fixtures. Demographically, they tend to be lower class males, but women have been making strides into the business. And most curiously of all, the with exception of one enthusiastic duo from Brooklyn (“We speak New York-ese!”), the Tree People are never actually from New York City. They all also seem to have something missing from their lives, figuratively or literally. François misses his family and has to rely on a friend named Jill for a place he can shower. François’ two assistants both regard him as a father figure and a guiding light in their troubled lives. Various other Tree People stress their economic anxieties in interviews, their hopes that they can move on to something “more steady.” Yet they all find solace in each other.
The Sinner Vindicated: Well folks, I don’t regret breaking the aforementioned cardinal rule of film criticism. My dad loved the film. He said that Tree Man gave him the experience of walking the New York streets with my sister that he hasn’t been able to have in years. He didn’t just love the movie, he experienced it in a manner more powerfully than I have most of the better movies I’ve seen this year. As for me? Well, I have a couple of issues with the film. What? I’m a film critic! It’s my job to nitpick! The film is unapologetically, sometimes aggressively saccharine and sugary. Whether it’s watching as François bursts into tears as he drives through the Adirondack Mountains because he misses his family, seeing a local urban landscaper named Costello use discarded evergreen branches to beautify city streets, or hearing one of François’ assistants talk about how he misses his four children (he sent them to Pennsylvania so they could get a better education), there isn’t a single moment in Tree Man that doesn’t go for the emotional jugular. The effect is a film that, despite its charming subject matter, feels like it forces itself upon you. But you know what? That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Maybe I’m just fatigued from a particularly horrific year. Maybe I’m impressed by how a simple film could bring so much simple joy to my father.
Overall: I can’t dislike Tree Man. And you know what else? This year when my dad comes up to visit me here in the city before Christmas, I think we’ll go looking for a familiar face and his Christmas tree stand.
Featured Image: XLrator Media