A Guide to Becoming An Elm Tree (Fantastic Fest 2023)
Dir. Adam & Skye Mann (2023)
A lonely man seeks the help of a carpenter to design and build a casket for his dead wife.
In my opinion, there are two main facets to critiquing film. The first facet, of course, is whether or not the film itself is enjoyable. This is, surprisingly, often the part of critiquing a film that most critics ignore. As we've discussed many times here before, just because a movie doesn't work as Oscar-bait doesn't mean that it's not a worthwhile endeavor, and there's nothing wrong with popcorn movies as long as you know that's what you're going to get from the start. The second facet of film critique is determining the artistic merit of the work. You can judge the integrity and quality of a film regardless of how it makes you feel: is the film well shot, the script tight and meaningful, the acting of sufficient quality to purvey the message. This is where most critics determine a film's worth, its relative value in the historical catalogue of film as an artistic medium.
Ideally, of course, you want a film to satisfy both criteria, providing at least adequate entertainment value to go along with its creative competency. It's rare to find such a film, at least as a matter of relative frequency compared to the total number of films produced. For every film that covers both facets there are a hundred that fall in one category or the other, and thousands (or even tens of thousands) that fall in neither. While A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree satisfies that second, critic-friendly criterion, it nestles itself firmly into the hundreds that are critically-sound without containing much entertainment value. It simply moves too slowly to entertain the majority of audiences.
The film is about a man named Padraigh (James Healy-Meaney) who seeks out a carpenter named John (Gerry Wade) to help build a coffin for his deceased wife. John isn't interested in just building him his box and sending him on his way, however, and insists that they pay respect to the materials by learning the local mythologies surrounding the elm trees and their historical significance to Irish culture. Padraigh gets in a little too deep, beginning to perform rituals to respect their arboreal overlords and continually falling into strange trances where he is remembering the reason for his plan in the first place. He begins to communicate with his dead wife, and there may be more to his story than he initially lets on.
The film is certainly well-shot, and it is potentially a critical success due to its technical achievement, old-school black-and-white cinematography, and generally competent acting. The script will be difficult to discern for many American audiences, the Irish brogue and occasional Gaelic requiring subtitles (at least) to parse. It's folk tale roots work well within the confines of the story, but it lacks the substance needed in a feature-length film despite only running 75 minutes. Make no mistake: A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree has something to say. Unfortunately, it sure takes it's sweet-ass time getting to the point.
Who this movie is for: Folk horror fans, Irish folklore lovers, Woodworkers
Bottom line: While I hesitate to recommend the film to a general audience, I will definitely go out on a limb and say that those familiar with or interested in Irish folklore may very well adore this one. It's filled with the kind of folktale magic inherent in a lot of European horror, and it's melancholic ambience carries the story quite well. The slow plot does it no favors, however, and it may be a drag to watch for any but the most discerning folk horror fans. The film played at Fantastic Fest and should be available on streaming soon.