Isidora works as a cleaner in an office full of journalists, who pay little attention to her as she goes about her work, throwing away leftover food from meetings and disposing of their morning coffee.
Having migrated from Bolivia, she is also a single mother struggling with caring for her sick young son, Tomas, who has a strange illness that tinges him green. When he begins to cough up pieces of plastic junk, she begins to panic — until she discovers that a magical tree has sprouted from some spilled food at her work, which offers a fruit that may just help Tomas in his strange ailment.
Written and directed by Paul Frankl as part of “The Uncertain Kingdom” collection of short films about contemporary British society, this short fantasy drama blends an imaginative magical realism with gritty social awareness. By weaving an engaging fable full of symbolism and metaphor, the eco-fairy tale offers a fresh, unique take on climate change, ecological awareness and the disruptions brought about by these globally cataclysmic issues.
Fictional narratives about these topics often focus on natural disasters, portraying their stories with an almost apocalyptic tone and atmosphere. But the writing here takes a fascinating mystical approach. The visuals begin in a muted, almost naturalistic way, following Isidora as she goes about her work, being ignored and unseen by the journalists she works for.
But the storytelling tucks in unexpected details — a strangely responsive, fast-growing plant, the greenish skin and junk-strewn vomit of Isidora’s son — that signal there’s more up this film’s sleeve, though the visual effects to bring these details to life remain subtle and low-key throughout.
Actor Diana Bermudez gives a compelling, understated and grounding performance as Isidora, anchoring the film’s more fanciful elements with a level of urgency. She is a worried mother above all else, overwhelmed and desperate about her son’s strange illness. She reacts with disbelief as the narrative develops its fantastical elements, but her desperation as a mother causes her to embrace them as her son’s sickness grows more worrisome. She travels from despair to fear to hope on a remarkably rich emotional arc, pinning her hopes on this miracle of nature.
Ultimately, though, “The Life Tree” eschews the neat and tidy ending for something more complicated and thought-provoking, which elucidates the complexities of climate crisis. Tomas’s “plastic sickness” and the titular tree itself are strong symbols, making the film’s themes and messaging clear, but it also folds in more complicated ideas about media indifference and the impact of growing numbers of natural disasters on global migration.
Though the film’s artistry and performances are richly subtle, its ideas and symbolism show strength through simplicity. We need nature to survive, but we have also fouled it with waste and pollution. Unless we look up from our complacencies and confront what is going on, our planet will suffer — and our children will bear the consequence.
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A mother discovers a healing tree that saves her dying son from plastic pollution. | The Life Tree
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