There’s something particularly grating about a quirky indie comedy that doesn’t work, because the line between a failure and a success can be difficult to see. From a couple of brief précis it’s difficult to spell out the difference between The Family Tree and The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance. Many of the key elements are the same, whether it’s disconnected children, an emasculated father figure or overly-stylized camera angles. But something key is missing from The Family Tree that all of its clever plotting and easy jokes about religion and middle-class values can’t hide: real affection for its characters.
In effect The Family Tree is never willing to try and really understand its family, instead creating wall of surface-level quirks as shorthand for their personalities. The son, for instance, is not only religious, he’s a gun nut who’s also considering suicide. Where his religious fervor comes from is never explored, and his personality is always defined by these few traits, making him less a person than a walking, talking signifier. In defter hands this could be effective, but the observations about gun fervor and religion are trite, and bordering on offensively wrong-headed. Within The Family Tree’s world the bad girls really do smoke under the bleachers and the father’s problems in life really are just a projection of his sexless marriage—look no further because the obvious answer is the right one.
The film’s story, as much as it has one, is just tracing these characters’ lives following the family’s mother sustaining amnesia as a result of her extramarital affair with her neighbor. Yes, The Family Tree resorts to that most obnoxious cliché of screenwriting, amnesia, but instead of using it as a way of exploring the way she’s changed following marriage and children, this part of the story goes nowhere other than setting up other plot machinations—the film’s writer and director dislike her too much to really care whether she has amnesia or not. Even worse, because her affair is with a black man, this sets up a series of scenes and characters ranging from mildly to disastrously racist.
There’s more affection here for the children, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever rise above their early typage. In fact, the characters who come closest to being real live people are both peripherals outside of the titular family, and they seem comparatively brimming over with life. The Family Tree literally has to resort to a miracle in order to write its way out of its tangled plots, but by then it’s hardly even noticeable. A bona fide miracle is in no way more unrealistic than the rest of what’s been on-screen for the past hour and a half.