'Education of Little Tree': learning slow and easy


If life goes by too fast for you, I know how to ratchet it down: watch "The Education of Little Tree." A time and place when life was slow inspires a movie that is slower still.

The stately pace is not entirely out of place. East Tennessee never looked so beautiful. "Little Tree" celebrates its mountains in every detail, from green, fern-tangled paths to vistas of fog lying heavy in the high valleys.

The characters provide scarcely more action than the fluttering leaves, yet the camera lingers on them, too. Stoic and internal mountain people that they are, they say little. Unfortunately for "Little Tree," in most cases their faces don't say all that much, either.

"Little Tree" opens in a grimy Tennessee mining town at the start of the Depression. The title character, an 8-year-old boy, part American Indian (Joseph Ashton), has lost both his parents. Despite the opposition of a shrewish aunt, he goes to live a Cherokee life with his grandparents. He immediately takes to the woods, the hunting dogs, even Grandpa's moon-shining.

He also takes to the tales of his Indian side. Grandpa (James Cromwell, "Babe," "LA Confidential") was born white, but has wholeheartedly adopted his wife's heritage. Grandma (Tantoo Cardinal) sings Little Tree Cherokee lullabies, but also teaches him from the big dictionary and makes sure the family attends church. Family friend Willow John (Graham Greene, reunited with "Dances With Wolves" costar Cardinal) is a sort of holy man -- "He has the magic."

But the magic mostly boils down to New Age-y rambling about "the way," a sort of all-purpose ecologically and politically correct way of life. Never mind that "Little Tree" finds plenty to mock about preachers; it gets pretty preachy itself, with talk like "It's only the white man takes more than his share."

All that said, "Little Tree" has merit as an antidote to the usual hyper kids movie. It touches on fears of abandonment, and draws suspense from classic, low-tech monsters like a rattlesnake.

The movie features some perfect moments of mountain life, like the spontaneous jig that accompanies the ritual tasting of the new batch of moonshine. Cromwell is charming, with enough sly looks to humanize the more talky stretches. Little Tree, as played by Ashton, is just a little too good to be interesting.

'The Education of Little Tree'

Starring James Cromwell, Tantoo Cardinal, Joseph Ashton, Graham Greene

Directed by Richard Friedenberg

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated PG (a rattlesnake, mild swearing)

Sun score **

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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