A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree has a good, simple story on paper, but its excessively slow directing works more against it than in its favor.
A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree is one of the most blatantly avant-garde titles for a film that I’ve ever seen. Unless some nut confuses this for a documentary to fulfill some bizarre lifelong goal, I think every single person will take a look at the title and imagine the type of micro-budgeted, slow, symbolic, ordinary yet abstract movie that student filmmakers would drool over. And they’d be right. But is it good at being all that? Padraig (James Healy-Meaney) is a man who recently lost his wife and seeks out John (Gerry Wade), a carpenter, to help him build a coffin for her. But as the working days go by, he starts exploring the myths and folklore surrounding the region’s trees and ends up tempted by their dark secrets.
A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree is the type of film that almost defies description. Not because it contains a ton of crazy, outlandish elements or sequences, but because it tells a story that’s as simplistic as stories come, while also containing a number of implied complexities that are sure to be received differently depending on who’s watching. It’s the type of film where any semblance of “plot” I could talk about comes in the form of spoilers, where Padraig begins making decisions regarding the seemingly supernatural elements around him, ultimately bringing the film’s opening statement of treachery returning to the treacherous to light.
Until then, the film has no qualms with taking its time, letting you breathe with these two characters as they just talk about their lives and beliefs, and trying to make an outwardly ordinary forest environment feel like some dark, spiritual realm. The problem is, despite the film clocking in at only 75 minutes, it still takes too long. Anyone who knows my tastes in movies knows that I love a good slow burn when it’s done well, where the film really lets whatever mood or imagery it’s trying to get across sink in. But even I have my limits, and A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree soars cleanly past them.
The film opens with a single, over 30-second-long shot looking up at one set of trees before you see anything else. There’s another 30-second stretch of Padraig and John eating in total silence, with nothing of note happening or being visually conveyed. The film will linger on shots in a way that at first I usually like, but then, even when the weight or purpose of what you’re seeing has fully sunken in, it just keeps lingering. The word “cut” was clearly not uttered that often, and it makes those 75 minutes feel like two hours.
Which is a shame, because when I think about the actual story just on its own, it’s pretty good despite its simplicity. In the same vein as the classic Irish folktales the film was clearly inspired by and has its characters share, A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree reads like an old, classic cautionary campfire tale. It’s a story about the inability to move on, meddling with the natural order, and the infections that seep in and the prices that need to be paid as a result. It’s the kind of tale that, when told orally in that campfire environment, would feature a lot of dramatic pauses and slow narration for the sake of building atmosphere. So, I get how the film’s glacial pacing is meant to mirror that cinematically, especially with two solid performances from both leads.
But the film just goes overboard, like if that campfire narrator stopped speaking for up to a full minute. These directing choices probably wouldn’t have been so bad if I had really felt engulfed in the setting and uneasy vibe the film wants to convey by taking the ordinary and making it look and feel as dark as it ends up becoming. And A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree comes close, especially with the black-and-white cinematography from Conor Tobin, but whenever it lingers forever on shots of trees, I just couldn’t escape the fact that I’m just looking at shots of trees. The score is decent, but it often overcooks the dread of scenes before it’s evident what’s even dreadful about them.
Maybe these efforts would work better if either the budget allowed for a few more flourishes (which isn’t anyone’s fault so I won’t blame the film for it), or if, again, the editing was tighter and didn’t make me grow numb to even the more effectively atmospheric shots in the film, of which there are plenty. I think A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree could have been an enjoyably spooky little movie, perfect for this time of year, had it just gotten out of its own way and been made with a bit more discipline. Parts of it do succeed in what they want to do and get me in that nice chilly mood, but sitting through the whole thing from start to finish was just too arduous for me.
But I give A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree credit for just being 75 minutes, whereas I’ve seen other films with the same problems that overstay their welcomes even further. I also feel bad criticizing it because this is the type of super small indie film that, let’s be honest, is not going to be a blip on the cinematic radar in general. For it to have such small odds of getting any attention, only for me to give it negative attention, makes me feel like I’m punching down. But I was drawn in by the premise, I have an honest opinion on how it turned out, and my job is to share that. I just don’t want to actively discourage anyone from checking it out. There’s definitely an audience for this that you may be part of. I just won’t be joining you if you are.
A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree was screened at Fantastic Fest in September 2023.