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Terrence Malick and … parenting

I saw THE TREE OF LIFE last night at the Sunshine Theatre in New York, and no surprise here – I loved it. As an urbanite at heart and decades-long Malick fan, I went in expecting to like it, and this epic look at life through lenses both broad and narrow did not disappoint. Here’s one revelation: if a twenty-something newbie director had paired dinosaurs with the intimate story of one Texas family, I very well may have balked. But I’ve been in a relationship with Malick for years now, and I trust him. I’d go anywhere with the guy, so cuts between sunshine-drenched babies draped in gauzy white to (next shot) an exploding star deep within space seem amazing, not pretentious. The scope of the project and its ability to move between things small and large feels truly groundbreaking. The one thing I was not expecting from the film was its specific meditation on parenting. In detailing small moments in the daily lives of the adoring-playful Mother and the adoring-stern Father (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), Malick paints a stark contrast between child-rearing approaches but is never overtly critical. As a friend said, it was the most patient and thorough examination of the small trials of parenting that she’s seen on the screen (and the day after with her own kids was more or less a misty-eyed affair), as the film ultimately asks us to cherish the living through all the small struggles and heart aches – especially if they happen to be our progeny.

The moment that forced reflection on parenting for me involved one of many whispered voice over lines delivered by the lovely Jessica Chastain. I can’t even recall the image – but it was something specific; a close up of a baby’s nose, the way in which the tiny soft hair on a newborn’s face might be illuminated by a setting sun through a window. Then, BAM – cut to the planet Jupiter. And Chastain’s line, something like, “My son, my son, my dear love. My life.” The effect for me was to think about how one small human, a mere speck amongst billions of other mothers, could feel like something so unbelievably expansive – as big as a planet. She is small (as physicalized by a tiny, intimate whisper), the planet is big (as shown by a majestic wide shot) – but clearly Malick has turned these scope associations on their heads. Suddenly tears were streaming down my face – and unexpectedly. When a filmmaker can have that kind of effect on me I’ll pledge to go even further! But where? In THE TREE OF LIFE Malick goes as small as a single cell and as big as the pre-big-bang cosmos. It’s a wild ride.

Trailer here:

-AH