Grief can be a beautiful thing, a reminder of the love shared for someone no longer with us. It can also be crippling, holding us back and holding us down from being our best selves. And sometimes, it can lead us to do awful things in the name of healing. Adam and Sky Mann’s A Guide To Becoming An Elm Tree is a cautionary tale on the dangers of letting grief consume us.
A Guide To Becoming An Elm Tree is the story of Padraig, a recently widowed school teacher who decides to find solace in building a coffin for his late wife. He enlists the help of John, an enigmatic and sage-like local carpenter, and in the process of learning the history of the elm tree finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the supernatural in his quest to find solace.
This is a strikingly simple film. The cinematography is sleek and efficient, with little wasted space and no fancy angles or techniques. It’s a gorgeous film, yes, but the beauty of it lies in the starkness it depicts in monochrome: shots of tree branches stretching up towards the sky, characters in the wilderness cast against the forested backgrounds, indoor scenes lit by subdued lamps. There’s a pleasant contrast here between shadow and light, made all the more so by the black and white coloring. It’s a very warm and cozy looking film, in that everything looks like the kind of day you’d spend inside, bundled up against the weather. The 1.19:1 aspect ratio makes it feel all the more intimate. This is in marked relief to the tone and content of the movie, although it feels almost like it’s softening up the message for the viewer.
While the look and plot of the film very much succeed at a sort of quasi-folk horror/classic ghost story, the injection of the cautionary aspect of the film is done somewhat heavy-handedly. Gerry Wade is fantastic as an actor in this movie, bringing to life a wise and somewhat world-weary carpenter who loves nothing but his craft and his pet bird. However, much of the characters dialogue is variations on the same thing: cryptic warnings about letting what is be. Similarly, there’s a scene involving a bartender telling a parable about a greedy chieftain that feels perfect tonally, but just a bit too on the nose. The lesson of properly dealing with grief and moving on with your life before it destroys you is a completely valid message to put across, and the film succeeds in its pursuit of bringing that lesson to a very somber plot point, but again, it just feels a touch too in your face. Although, all cards on the table, it does lead to an absolutely crushing final scene that was as lovely as it was brutal, so I suppose the means justify the ends.
A Guide To Becoming An Elm Tree is a deeply melancholy film, giving little room to any sort of humor or levity. But ultimately, that fits the tone perfectly, as it seeks to teach a very important lesson: properly deal with your grief, or else. Padraig spends much of the film seeking some kind of emotional shortcut to dealing with his pain, even in the beginning when he first seeks out John’s service. His story is bleak, but realistic: pain, when left to linger, only leads to more pain.