Saturday, January 20 , 2018, 3:32 pm | Fair 62º


Cinema in Focus: ‘The Tree of Life’ a Multigenerational Experience

Film explores the reality that we are products of our parents in more than just physical or genetic ways

3 Stars — Challenging

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a multigenerational emotional experience — a look at the sins and grace that is passed on from one generation to another.

What pain do we carry from the experiences of our parents? What is God’s plan for our lives as we try to temper the fallibility of our mothers and fathers? Can we be transformed by the grace of God and those who have been touched by it?

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a product of his generation and that of his father’s. Raising a family with a wife and three boys in Texas in the 1950s, Mr. O’Brien lives his life by the book, working hard, raising his sons in the life of the local church, and providing a military-discipline in his household like he was taught by both his own father and the Marines. He is loving and kind, while at the same time being harsh and lacking compassion.

Like many men who came out of World War II and had parents who were products of the Great Depression, life is not viewed as easy for those who aren’t willing to work hard to survive. Mr. O’Brien, like his father, believes that the most loving thing he can teach his sons is to be precise, disciplined to a fault, and to recognize that life sometimes requires fighting hard for what you need to survive.

Like most families, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s sons are very different from one another. Their oldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), is like his father, and as in many father-son relationships, theirs is often in conflict. What one doesn’t like in oneself often cannot be tolerated in others — especially if it is your son or father. Mr. O’Brien’s hopes and dreams for his sons are that they will end up better than he did, and he believes that requires being strong and going for what you want with a military-like strategy and focus.

The O’Briens’ middle son, Steve (Tye Sheridan), is more like his mother — loving, accepting, and not interested in the things of his father, such as learning how to shoot a gun or learning how to fight for what you want. His older brother treats him as weak, and his father takes out his frustration on his wife for his inability to transform his son into the kind of man he wants him to be.

The The Tree of Life is both a good story and a subtle allegory. At times it isn’t clear what is happening, between the imagery of life evolving and transforming through millions of years to the questions raised in the form of prayers throughout the story. We see every step of the life of this family primarily through the eyes of the oldest son, who in his middle-age years is played by Sean Penn. Reflecting back on how he sees life, we are challenged to look at our own lives and ponder how our parents, even if they were faithful believers, served as role models for our emotional maturity.

It becomes apparent early in the story that someone in the family has either been hurt badly or died, and that much of the reflection by each remaining member is about what they could have done differently in their relationships if they had known that their time together was short. This question is the most compelling thread in the whole story. If we knew this was the last day that we would spend with our loved ones, would we treat them differently?

The completion of the story takes place in a vision of heaven where grace is restored to each member of the family. While we each may try to live out our lives in the best framework possible, we are often tainted by multigenerations of fallibility. The hope that The Tree of Life communicates is that in the grace of God there is a remarkable ability for reconciliation.


» Recognizing that we are all products of our multigenerational experiences, how has your family made you who you are? In what ways have you chosen to be different from your family of origin?

» Since God is love and therefore creates us to express that love in relationships means our relationships are part of our spiritual life. How have your relationships encouraged or discouraged you spiritually?

» The loss of someone we love “before their time” is a haunting experience. Have you prematurely lost someone close to you, and how has that loss captured your thoughts? If you don’t think about them, why do you think that is so?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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