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Under the Tree
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by Jay Seaver

"Full of shade."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: "Under the Tree" is a tight little story of simmering malice in the suburbs that starts testing how dark you want your comedy very early, to the point where it's arguably just a couple of jokes to slide the audience into quite mean-spirited material. Still, the veneer of absurdity over the building pressure (the latter more underlined by the score than the former) is enough to keep pulling the audience forward, as is the precarious balance between horrific potential and good intentions.

It starts with Atli (Stein├ż├│r Hr├│ar Stein├ż├│rsson) being kicked out of his house by his wife Agnes (L├íra J├│hanna J├│nsd├│ttir) for what are understandable, if not necessarily insurmountable reasons, and as such winding up in his old family home while Agnes moves for full custody of their daughter Asa (Sigr├şdur Sigurp├ílsd├│ttir Scheving), where his mother Inga (Edda Bj├Ârgvinsd├│ttir) and to a lesser extent his father Baldvin (Sigur├░ur Sigurj├│nsson) tend to compare him with absent brother Uggi. They're having a disagreement with their next door neighbors, as their prize tree casts a shadow over the back patio where Eybjorg (Selma Bj├Ârnsd├│ttir) likes to sunbathe, and Inga doesn't particularly like the younger woman her neighbor Konrad (├×orsteinn Bachmann) married anyway.

Trees like the one Inga and Baldvin have are something of a rarity in their residential neighborhood - the houses are densely packed and the rocky Icelandic soil is not particularly hospitable - so the most practically straightforward solution to the problem is off the table. There's something fitting about a tree serving as the personification of the couples' anger and resentment; it grows slowly but surely, its shadow harmless until it reaches a certain height and something else changes, and the root system has been growing as well, maintaining a firm grip on the ground (and suggesting that just getting out a chainsaw won't get to the whole issue). It's a living thing even if it seems inactive on first glance, pre-empting the question of how these neighbors ever got along. Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigur├░sson and cinematographer Monika Lenczewska shoot it and the backyards in question carefully, often framing scenes just wide enough to capture the entirety of the feuding families' house and yard, but just tight enough to exclude the rest of the neighborhood. Every once in a while they'll do the same on the other side of their houses, a brief reminder that all this melodrama may be hidden from passerby.

It's perhaps a lot of work for a metaphor that is often out of sight, especially when the story is following Atli and his efforts to reconcile with Agnes - or, failing that, at least not be cut completely from his daughter's life. There's a bit of absurdity to how that situation starts and continues (Atli's looking at <I>that</I> sex tape seems as dumb as it is hurtful), which is also the case with the whole tree deal, but it escalates past darkly funny quickly, enough to make one wonder just how dark Icelandic comedy usually gets. There's bits of it that play like they're supposed to be outrageous gags that are just horrifying. It is probably worth noting, too, that in all three of the film's main couples, the woman tends to be the one most prone toward over-reaction and deliberate escalation, especially toward the start - not bad in and of itself, but it stands out as a pattern enough to make one wonder if it's part of the film's point, though it's likely not meant to be.

That gives Edda Bj├Ârgvinsd├│ttir a hell of a character to jump into, and she just grabs the movie with her teeth and snarls at anybody else who might try and take it from her. Inga is ferociously angry at the world, and she's got a special kind of rage and disdain for everybody in it, and it gives what could just be a monotonously miserable person enough nuance to make the specifics of what made her that way more than just obligatory background. Stein├ż├│r Hr├│ar Stein├ż├│rsson shows some of that capacity for anger as Alti, but it's an undercurrent to his being a sort of sad sack, playing aggrieved but not powerfully enough so to get the audience in his corner despite often seeming in the right. He's right on the border between sympathetic and pathetic. The rest of the cast have smaller roles, but they're impressive in how many take mild, somewhat put-upon characters and, in relatively few scenes, move them to the point where the audience absolutely buys them acting out.

It's not a slow burn by any means - it's a quick movie and already smoldering as things start - but it's able to grab the audience with what seem like small hooks before getting weird and mean. It flirts with being cruel enough to push an audience away, but winds up feeling like a bone-dry comedy even if it's not the sort that makes one laugh out loud.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32241&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/27/18 20:30:36
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  10-Aug-2018 (15)

  06-Jul-2018 (MA)

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