There’s a new trend in blending non-fiction and narrative, wherein actors or non-actors play some version of themselves in a story that hews close to their own experiences. Obviously, 2014 Sundance juggernaut “Boyhood” uses elements of this approach, as well as the lauded “Actress” by Robert Greene. For his debut feature film, “Bob and the Trees,” Diego Ongaro found himself taken with the world of loggers in Western Massachusetts and set out to tell their story, in a somewhat fictionalized environment, but utilizes non-actors to play themselves, or versions of themselves, and he manages to get quite the performance from his lead Bob Tarasuk as Bob Tarasuk.
When Ongaro befriended Tarasuk after moving to the Berkshires, he wanted to tell the story of the dangerous and challenging life of a commercial logger/forester. After making a short film, they decided to expand it to a feature, and the result is “Bob and the Trees.” In many ways, there are parallels to Bob’s real life, and many of his family members also play roles in the film, with his son-in-law, Matt Gallagher, playing his son. In fact, the only professional actor is Polly MacIntyre, a theater actress from Philadelphia, who play’s Bob’s wife.
Essentially, the film is precisely about what the title telegraphs: Bob, and trees. But it feels much deeper and more profound than that, exploring the struggles that Bob faces in his business, both financial and familial, which are intertwined. His son works with him and Bob has recently “bought a job,” clearing timber from a piece of land. When the trees turn out to be infested with ants, and the wood useless, Bob gets increasingly desperate about his business, though he refuses to do the “right” or rational thing, as his son pressures him to do.
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“Bob and the Trees” is the kind of film that drops one into a scene without much exposition or context, starting in the middle of the action or conversation. The camera feels like another character in the room, hanging back and observing, taking in the scenes of wintertime logging, family get togethers, and Bob’s quirky solo activities (he really likes hardcore rap music). Tarasuk is wonderfully natural, open, and unstudied, and though he’s playing a version of himself, he also perfectly expresses Bob’s quiet, increasing desperation. Gallagher is also great as Matt, who is completely frustrated and exasperated with his father’s choices, though he supports him all the same.
For a film about logging, “Bob and the Trees” is strangely compelling, and a tonal, ambient score amps up the tension as Bob becomes more unhinged with worry about his business. Still, it does suffer from the problem that many films at Sundance this year have, which is that it could stand to lose about 10 minutes in the edit. It just drags at the end, particularly during a far-too-long scene where Bob has to butcher one of his beloved farm animals due to injury.
The story of the making of “Bob and the Trees” is probably the most interesting thing about the film itself, and without that context, it might not draw too much attention. But it’s an interesting portrait of a man’s struggle, and Tarasuk gives a fascinating performance as a version of himself. It’s an interesting festival curio, and a fine debut for Ongaro to demonstrate his loose and observational approach to creating stories from the world around him. [B]
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