So opaque that one doesn’t realize its story is set in 1969—rather than the present—until it’s half finished, Things That Hang From Trees offers a slice of special education-tinged Southern gothic minus the evocative eccentricity. Based on screenwriter Aaron Louis Tordini’s own novella, Ido Mizrahy’s debut concerns young Tommy Wheeler (Cooper Musgrove), a “retarded” kid with a sexpot lingerie shop owner/display mannequin for a mother (Deborah Kara Unger), an abusive, absentee prick for a father (Ray McKinnon), and a ragamuffin group of acquaintances that includes an imposing bully (Ryan Parker), a self-loathing, Bible-thumping barber (Daniel von Bargen), and a wino named Ump (Peter Gerety) who acts as the boy’s sloshed guardian angel.
Nominally structured around Tommy’s desire to watch fireworks from the top of his St. Augustine, Florida hometown’s lighthouse, Tordini’s tale mainly preoccupies itself with the quirky, cute and/or ominous interactions between Tommy and his weirdo neighbors, all of whom seem to aimlessly orbit around a monolithic oak—its branches strewn with streamers, beer cans, and a toilet seat—that sits behind Miss Millie’s (Laila Robins) diner. Eventually cradling a dead woman and overlooking the birth of Tommy’s new surrogate family, the towering tree is a giant Metaphor without any heft, something that can also be said about most elements of Mizrahy’s film, which boasts little more than tired Southern gothic archetypes (beatific naïf, whorish outsider, grotesque bigot) and a self-important somberness that masks its tale’s fundamental vapidity.
If the director’s attempts to imbue his oddball goings-on with allegorical meaning are generally ineffective, at least Things That Hang on Trees captures the sultry, sticky, slightly rancid humidity of its Floridian locale. And similar to Wild Tigers I Have Known—another off-kilter cinematic collection of adolescent signifiers boasting a Maurice Sendak-style title—it occasionally overcomes its pretensions long enough to offer up a mildly beguiling childhood wonderland of racism, cruelty, and fear. Mostly, though, Mizrahy’s film feels like Flannery O’Conner without the atmosphere of near-oppressive religiosity, or William Faulkner without the hypnotic surreality—or, to put it bluntly, like a giant symbolic drag.