I don’t know when a movie connected more immediately to my own personal experience. Strangely enough, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys there are me. If I was going to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes depict a childhood in a town in the American Midlands, where life enters and leaves through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who breathes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and laziness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things.
The three boys of the O’Brien family are sun-kissed, scuffed by play, disturbed by glimpses of adult secrets, filled with a great urgency to grow up and find out who they are.
I wrote earlier about the many ways this film evoked my own memories of such a time and place. About wide lawns. About a city that, in a way, in memory, is always seen with a wide angle lens. About houses that are never locked. Mothers looking out the windows to see their children. About the summer heat and boredom of church services, the unpredictable theater at the dinner table, and the unsettling sounds of an argument between parents, half heard through an open window.
Watching the movie, I remembered Ray Bradbury’s memory of a boy waking up to the sound of a green machine outside his window – a lawn mower being pushed in his hand. Maybe you grew up in a big city, with the doors locked and everything air conditioned. It does not matter. Most of us, unless we are not unlucky, have something from the same childhood, as we are protected by innocence and naivety.
In mentioning the O’Brien family, I realized one detail that the film was exactly right: the parents are called Mr. O’Brien and Mrs. O’Brien. Yes. Because the parents of other children were never considered by their first names, and the first names of your own parents were words used only by others. Your parents were Mother and Father, and they defined your reality, and you were open to their emotions, both soothing and alarming. And young Jack O’Brien is growing up and will one day become Mr. O’Brien, but will never feel as real as his father.