Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Wallace Pruitt’

Joicie Appell

” THE TREE” My rating: B- (Opens July 14 at the Tivoli)

  95 minutes | No MPAA rating

KC-based ma-and-pa filmmakers Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt cannot be accused of taking the easy way out.

To date they have produced three mostly self-financed feature films, all of remarkably high technical quality and all of which avoid genre labeling. The Pruitts are, for want of a better word, humanists whose work eschews  violence, sexuality, offensive language and the sort of conflict that requires  a villain. I’m yet to encounter any actual bad guys in their cinematic world.

Their latest, “The Tree,” has cleaned up on the festival circuit and is now receiving a commercial run at the independent  Tivoli Theatre. It’s a relatively simple yarn that gains depth thanks to the lead performance of Joicie Appell, for decades a staple on the Kansas City theatre scene and now, at 88, making the most of her first movie leading role.

Appell plays widowed grandmother Dorothy Thorp, a resident of Wamego, Kansas, who has a mind to drive her old car east to Terre Haute, Indiana, her birthplace.  As she approaches 90 she’s been thinking a lot about the little girl who was her best friend way back then, and about the magnificent tree which became their playground, hiding place and sacred site.

The Pruitts’ film is a series of vignettes as Dorothy makes her way across the Midwest. Periodically the story returns to Wamego where her neighbors, Marge and John (Laura Kirk, Paul Fellers)  fret over whether they should be telling Dorothy’s relations of this late-in-life fling. John takes a hands-off approach; Marge, though, is serious about her gig as Dorothy’s unofficial guardian. Like everyone in this movie, they’re decent folk.

There are also flashbacks to Dorothy’s semi-idyllic childhood.

“The Tree” quickly falls into a pattern. Dorothy meets folks along the way, gets insights into their troubles, and does what she can to help.  Often that means financial generosity:  leaving a humongous tip for a waitress who has poured out her heart to the traveller, or leaving behind a survival fund for a homeless veteran she finds sleeping in a doorway.

After a while a certain sameness sets in — each scene employs the same setup and rhythms — but keeping us involved is Appell’s performance, a low-keyed wonder in which her character’s thoughts and emotions are presented with refreshing economy. It’s the furthest thing from scenery chewing.

“The Tree” looks and sounds great, which is no small thing when you consider that with a budget of only $60,000 the filmmaking couple had to do darn near every job on the set themselves (cinematography, editing, direction, casting, production design, art direction, sound…etc.).

Like all of their films to date, “The Tree” is an obvious labor of love.  Stephen Wallace Pruitt —  a member of the economics faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City — based the story on his own late mother and her childhood best friend.

Even if you take exception to some of the particulars, you cannot remain immune to “The Tree’s” wealth of feeling.

| Robert W. Butler


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