'Bob and the Trees': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
The realities of a hardscrabble existence generate their own telling drama

Diego Ongaro's debut feature boasts an authentic, nonprofessional cast and striking Berkshire Mountain locations.

Rural subsistence activities and the residents who rely on them get sympathetic and memorable treatment from accomplished first-time feature director Diego Ongaro in Bob and the Trees, a verite drama that mines a rich vein of humanism shot through with characteristically dry New England humor.

How young French filmmaker Ongaro ended up in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and convinced some of the locals to play key parts in his feature might warrant its own film treatment, but the outcome appears advantageous regardless. Perceptively scripted, nimbly shot and efficiently produced, Ongaro’s debut is well-suited for a broad regional audience, and with the right handling, could break through on the national art house circuit as well.

Initially the film focuses on the complicated economics facing many small family farmers. Like his peers, Bob (Bob Tarasuk), who's in his 50s, pursues a plethora of strategies to keep his operation afloat with the help of his wife, Polly (Polly MacIntyre). With 30 head of hog, a herd of sheep and about a dozen cattle, he has a potentially profitable investment in livestock. Those animals aren’t paying any dividends in the middle of winter while they’re consuming hay and feed, however, so Bob switches his efforts to logging the surrounding foothills of the Berkshires. He makes an offer on a parcel of timber owned by wealthy neighbor Nat Leiland (Nathaniel Gregory) and begins cutting the acreage with his mid-20s son Matt (Matt Gallagher), just as a heavy snowfall and the brutal polar vortex of 2014 set in.

What Bob doesn’t mention to either Matt or Polly is that he’s drained his back account to pay Leiland cash for the contract up front. With rented logging equipment and fuel to cover as well, Bob’s feeling pretty heavily leveraged as he and Matt struggle through knee-deep snow lugging heavy chainsaws to try and cut enough oak, poplar and fir to get ahead of his substantial expenses. After he's forced to accept less than his original estimate on the timber due to an oversupply at the mill, they discover that nearly a third of the trees are ant-infested and rotten, representing another substantial blow to Bob’s bottom line.

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In between long days of laboring in the woods, he tends to the farm and his favorite cow, Ginger, who has a mysterious laceration developing on her neck. Bob’s starting to suspect that somebody may be trying to sabotage his farming and logging operations, either out of spite or motivated by cutthroat competition, so he takes to toting his pump-action shotgun around the property as a precaution. His creeping paranoia isn’t lost on either Peggy or Matt, who storms off the job when Bob finally tells him that he’s already paid for the timber and refuses to ask for a refund on the rotten trees. Bob’s not likely to complete the job solo, however, so something clearly has to give if he expects to come out ahead on his increasingly shaky deal. 

Based on Ongaro’s 2010 short film, Bob and the Trees profitably leverages cinematographers Chris Teague’s and Danny Vecchione’s credits on Sundance features like Obvious Child, Appropriate Behavior and Kinyarwanda. The filmmakers adopt a documentary-hybrid style for the film, with the DPs shooting on compact, handheld Black Magic Pocket Cinema cameras that allow them to plunge through snowdrifts and woodlots to capture the actors in the precarious process of cutting timber, often rendering these outdoor scenes in almost monochromatic hues of white, brown and gray. Benefiting from natural lighting, practical settings and a preponderance of exterior locations, Ongaro and his cinematographers situate the narrative in an inescapably specific milieu, with the stark, snowy landscape almost developing into another supporting character throughout the film.

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The principal cast, primarily nonprofessionals, offers the advantage of freshness and spontaneity. Tarasuk is a natural raconteur, a Berkshires-region farmer and logger with more than 30 years experience in the field. His direct, unaffected style is both refreshing and revealing, demonstrating an attitude, cadence and carriage that convey his deep connection with the surrounding landscape.

Gallagher, Tarasuk’s real-life son-in-law, clearly benefits from his personal relationship with Bob, providing an admirably unencumbered performance that preserves a valuable and decisive degree of misdirection that pays off nicely in the third act. MacIntyre and the rest of the supporting cast, including Polly’s warm sewing circle of “stitch and bitch” cronies, lend a degree of regional authenticity to the film that more recognizable actors could simply not access.

Tying all of these elements together, Ongaro’s perceptive take on the struggles that rural communities often confront reveals an overall tone of unsentimental empathy that’s too often missing from outsider perspectives.

Production companies: Inside Voices, Moteur S’il Vous Plait
Cast: Bob Tarasuk, Matt Gallagher, Polly MacIntyre, Winthrop Barrett, Nathaniel Gregory
Director: Diego Ongaro
Screenwriters: Diego Ongaro, Courtney Maum, Sasha Statman-Weil
Producers: Rob Cristiano, Diego Ongaro, Christie Molia
Executive producers: Diego Ongaro, Christie Molia, Jean-Luc Boukhari, Xabi Molia
Directors of photography: Chris Teague, Danny Vecchione
Editor: Benoit Sauvage
Music: Brian McBride
Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 92 minutes 

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