There is no English-speaking actress better suited to star in a Southern Gothic film than Deborah Kara Unger. Her odd, exotic face - high cheekbones, narrow eyes, and features that seem foreign to one another - gives an air of strangeness to even the most mundane of moments, while her carriage more often than not creates a dramatic gulf between herself and the viewer. It is appropriate, then, that her character occupies the center of Things That Hang from Trees, the debut feature from American-born, Israeli-raised, Ido Mizrahy; the director relies very strongly on the strangeness of his star for the film’s power.
Unger plays Connie Mae Wheeler, a single mother in St. Augustine, Florida whose reliance on a purse full of pharmaceuticals only increases her distance from the world. Half-heartedly raising a young son, Tommy, (ably played by Cooper Musgrove), Connie Mae spends most of her time either working in her lingerie shop or posing in its window, acting as a mannequin. Tommy, meanwhile, is in a world of his own for a variety of reasons including his mother’s aloofness, childhood trauma, and what appears to be slight mental retardation - those in St. Augustine who care for him prefer to call him “quiet,” or “simple.” Though precious little really happens in Things That Hang from Trees, Tommy’s desire to watch the annual fireworks display alone, from the top of the town lighthouse, gives it what passes for a plot.
Tommy’s violent father left a few years before the film begins, after imposing untold trauma on both the boy and his mother, so Tommy often skips school and wanders the town on his own, thus offering Mizrahy a convenient means of introducing the town’s motley crew of residents. Tommy’s school teacher is desired by her much older boss; the barber is a masochistic, self-hating religious fanatic with a strange interest in Tommy; Ump, the town drunk, is hopelessly in love with café owner Miss Milly, and is the most reasonable, most respected figure in the film. There are others, but you get the idea: the characters are all shameless cliches, seemingly created only to enhance the atmosphere that is the director’s primary concern.
Despite being saddled with two dimensional characters, Mizrahy’s actors are uniformly strong, most notably Peter Gerety, who plays Ump. As the painfully stereotypical drunk-who-sees-all, Gerety is his old, reliable self, bringing abundant humanity and depth to a character that many actors would allow to wallow in clichés. Though nothing he does is a surprise, almost all of it is nevertheless convincing -- quite an accomplishment when we can see every line and action coming from a mile away. Also good in a small role is Laila Robins as Miss Milly. Given incredibly little to do -- like Ump, Milly is Good-Hearted and not much else -- she manages to create a character from nothing, and convinces us to care for her, despite screenwriter Aaron Louis Tordini’s (on whose novel the film is based) apparent lack of interest in her motivation and feelings. This character-vagueness is true across the board: though the performances are good, Mizrahy and Tordini give their actors very little to do, and their audience very little to care about. As a result, though it clearly aspires to something more, the film becomes a mere exercise in atmosphere.
To Mizrahy’s credit, that exercise is successful. From almost its first frame, the film possesses a disconcerting air not just of strangeness, but of looming danger. Despite the fundamental lack of movement or change in the film, there is nevertheless a constant buzz of activity from the three children who circulate through it: Tommy and his two friends/tormentors are constantly running through the frame, giving Things That Hang from Trees an impotent urgency that only adds to its unexpectedly potent atmosphere. Another element of that potency is the constant, troubling sense that Tommy is not safe. Though we are with him during what feels like every moment of the day -- we see him bullied, passing the time with “friends”, chatting with Ump, sitting at school -- there are nevertheless unexplained bruises and cuts that are just as troubling to us as they are to his teacher. Is someone abusing him? Ump protects him with surprising ferocity from the barber -- could it be him? Is it his mother? Or did Tommy simply slip into one of his vivid daydreams and walk into a sign post? The fact that all of these are real possibilities is a sign of Mizrahy’s tremendous potential as a director; without too heavy-handed of a set-up, he’s given the town a much greater context and mystery than is present in the screenplay.
The problem, however, is that there’s not much else going on. Things That Hang from Trees is a film that works very hard to convince its audience that it’s something very deep and profound; when you go looking for that profundity, however, there’s nothing there. Don’t get me wrong: there are pregnant moments, and vaguely significant looks, and exchanges that mean more than they might. But, in the end, all of those pieces are nothing more than distinct fragments with nothing to hold them together, and the film is nothing more than a powerful feeling, accompanied by a handful of lovely images.