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Cherry Tree
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by Jay Seaver

"Could be tart, winds up rotten."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Cherry Tree" starts out kind of silly but promising with its tale of dark-age witches whose evil has been stored in the roots of a cherry tree in the Irish town of Orchard for centuries, and it becomes a pretty enjoyable little horror film, with tough choices, solid relationships that will cause things to hurt when terrible things happen, etc. But the back end - oof. The film squanders goodwill in impressively thorough fashion, to the point where it's easy to forget having liked it at the start.

To be fair, that opening description of the evil witch tree leads to Sissy Young (Anna Walton) apparently killing an old friend so that she can have her job as the local high school's field hockey coach. Once it introduces fifteen-year-old Faith Maguire (Naomi Battrick) and the characters in her orbit - leukemia-stricken father Sean (Sam Hazeldine), motorcycle-riding best friend Amy (Elva Trill), cute-boy-that-likes-Faith-though-Amy-saw-him-first Brian (Patrick Gibson) - and Sissy starts insinuating herself into Faith's life, things start to get interesting.

They're interesting in large part because that cast of characters is good enough for a movie that doesn't have weird supernatural stuff going on. Naomi Battrick is a great discovery as Faith; she's got an easy appeal, coming across as smart and kind without being bland, capable of wit but never losing track of the weight resting on her. She's got particularly nice chemistry with Sam Hazeldine as her father; there's both ease and desperation to their closeness. Patrick Gibson is given a somewhat generic boy to play as Brian, but he and Elva Trill give their characters a bit of personality. Anna Walton, on the other hand, dives into her wicked-witch role without looking back, making Sissy unhinged but never out of control.

That's how the film seems for a while, too. Sure, some of its rituals and symbolism may seem kind of thrown together - the blood and cherries seem obvious enough, but what's the deal with the centipedes and dead birds? - but there's just enough actual emotional stakes to get Faith making dangerous decisions to keep things moving for a while. Plus, when all else fails, there's a pulpy grandeur to the visuals - sure, some movies will have marvelous old manors where secret societies meet, but this one has a room dug out underneath the glorious cherry tree that feels like the filmmakers wanting to dazzle rather than distract.

You can push that too far, though. The movie never really made a lot of sense even as it played out - there was always an element of "why now, why her, why this set of steps" to it - but as it goes chugging to the finale, writer Brendan McCarthy and director David Keating just seem to lose all sense of one thing plausibly leading to another. Faith seems to become a video game character being given instructions for what to do next that come from nowhere, and the mythology she's plugged into becomes much more arbitrary. The audience is invested in the movie in large part because it's with Faith; she digs her way into this situation but also convinces us that she's brave and good enough to get out. When things get out of Faith's hands, the randomness becomes aggravating rather than entertaining.

It leads to the movie ending on a stinger that has no punch because it means that the filmmakers just have no idea what the thing or the characters are about. The temptation to come back for one last scare, no matter how much it undermines everything that the viewer had cared about on the way there, has hurt more than a few horror movies, but this one seems worse. The filmmakers had been doing so well, after all, balancing weird fantasy with something the audience could relate to, only to so completely lose that in the last act.

That last-half derailment makes "Cherry Tree" a much bigger disappointment than other genre movies that don't have nearly as many good bits as this one does. This one screws up a good thing obviously enough to generate anger, and that hurts more than never being a good thing at all.

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originally posted: 09/09/15 14:43:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  08-Jan-2016 (NR)
  DVD: 05-Apr-2016



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