Handsomely produced, The Education of Little Tree, Richard Friedenberg's feature directorial debut, offers a tenderly compassionate, highly evocative chronicle of the turbulent childhood of a Cherokee orphan during the Depression. Pic captures admirably the distinctive lifestyle of American Indians and their struggle against blatant racism, but it's too earnest and elegiac by the commercial standards of today's teen and family fare. This means that Paramount will have to take an extremely aggressive approach in marketing its worthy family drama whose message is still very much relevant.
Intended as a record of what has been lost in the cruel eradication of Native American culture over the last century, The Education of Little Tree also serves as an urgent reminder of how important it is to educate the younger generation of Americans with a more accurate appreciation of the country's diverse racial minorities and their subcultures.
Protagonist is 8-year-old Little Tree (Joseph Ashton), an orphan who had lost both his father and mother. Resisting his aunt's efforts to raise him, he chooses to go to his grandparents, Indian Grandma (played by the beautifully regal Tantoo Cardinal) and white Grandpa, (Babe's James Cromwell). Under their wings, he becomes exposed to an outdoor life and begins to experience the magical beauty of the Smoky Mountains and the folkloristic wisdom of the Cherokee way of life. Living high in the hills, in a modest two-room cabin, Little Tree's warm and pragmatic grandparents tutor him in reading, math, and other basic skills. Additional guidance comes from Willow John (Grahame Green), a mysterious medicine man and healer, who takes pride in conveying the history of the Cherokee nation to his eager pupil.
Since the characters are laconic with their words and spare in their emotions, film's first part is static, relying massively on visuals and sounds. The story picks some necessary steam when the local authorities discover the moonshine still that provides the family's only income. Reported to the state welfare department, they are forced to send the boy to the Notched Gap Indian School.
Once placed at the rigid institution, Little Tree is stripped of his Indian name and is subjected to cruel prejudice from the school's officials. A further degradation occurs when his frank answer to a teacher's query results in a physical punishment. Failing to understand what he has done wrong, he's locked in a tiny attic until he admits his “mistake.”
As scripter and director, Friedenberg, whose screenplay of A River Runs Through It won an Oscar nomination, contrasts the brutality of ignorant authorities with the importance of familial love and tradition. Friedenberg structures the story as a boy's rite-of-passage journey toward manhood, one that is as much physical as it is emotional. Set in the 1930s, saga adds another panel to the understanding of the inevitably painful identity crisis of American Indians, recorded onscreen in later films such as Hombre or Little Big Man, in which the protagonists go back and forth from the Indian to white civilization.
Principal cast treats the film with the respect it deserves. Cromwell brings strength and wisdom to his Grandpa role, and Cardinal infuses her Grandma with dignity and grace. As the healer, Greene displays his unique blend of charisma and humor. In the lead, child actor Ashton holds his own with the adult thesps.