[“City of Trees” is the fourth film of my “5 Queer Christmas Films for 2021” post. To read the next review, “Dashing In December”, click HERE. To read the previous review, “The Christmas Setup“, click HERE.]
Historically, at least for the films I have reviewed, when one person writes, directs, AND stars in their own film – it doesn’t work. As expected, that is the case with “City of Trees.” However the low rating actually stems more from the lack of a budget, crappy cinematographic elements, and poor editing. The plot itself is rather intriguing with some in-depth conversations. The trouble is that by the time the story got involved, I was already zoning out due to an incredibly slow pace and the lack of adequate lighting. However, many fans online rave about “City of Trees.” Let’s break it down and see what happened.
Synopsis of “City of Trees”
Detailed synopsis… to be written…
A 20 something woman goes back to her hometown for the holidays for the first time in several years and is not only met with people from her past, but she’s forced to deal with unresolved feelings too.
Oi vey… let’s start off with the worst parts. Cinematographically – it sucks. Half of the film is so poorly lit that I can barely tell what is happening, even with my screen’s brightness turned all the way up. If I cannot see what’s going on, you’ve lost my interest. I could perhaps chalk that up to watching a poor version of the film. But unfortunately, poor lighting isn’t the only issue – sometimes the sound was so unbalanced that it was also hard to even hear the dialogue. (And when you can barely see what’s happening, that can kill any interest right there.) The two worst scenes were in the supermarket when it felt like they didn’t use a boom, and when Ainsley and Sophie hang out by the lake. All I can hear are the ducks. Between straining to see and straining to hear, the cinematographic bits are ruined.
Yet alas, the issues continue. With regards to the editing, I think watching paint dry would actually be faster than the snail’s pace of “City of Trees!” Tying into the pacing issue, how the scenes are actually framed created issues itself. Many of the scenes are single shots, no back and forth between wide angle shots and closeups. By the second little vignette/scene, I actually felt like I was watching a play onstage from a single vantage point. (Not the experience I expect from a film.) A few scenes even had me scratching my head wondering why they were shot they way they were. As the camera panned around the dinner table, the lens is so zoomed in that it not only cropped out the tops of their heads but I swear I could see their nose hairs! The scene at the baseball field? WHY did they have to set the camera on the ground while the two girls kept walking further and further away to the point they became blurred out? Perhaps it was to be artistic? (Hint – it wasn’t.)
Next up on the list of problems is a script that simply bored me. I actually started falling asleep halfway through watching “City of Trees” the first time, I had to go back and watch the film a second time just to figure out what was going on! It’s not that the script is bad; it’s just that everything progresses so slowly that the viewer easily loses interest because we haven’t yet been fully drawn into story that captivates and keeps our interest from waning. But if the story itself isn’t that bad, where did it all go wrong?
When you have a director that tries to do too much and as a result, multiple elements began to fail. Alexandra Swarens took on the hats of writer, director, AND the leading role in her own film. I’ve yet to come across a situation where that has worked out. It’s like the triad for quality, cost, and time: you can only focus on one – maybe two – elements but the third will suffer if you try to do it all. This is the case with film-making. A director can also be the writer and help bring a good story to life on film. And I’d propose that a good actor may be able to also write the film. But to act AND direct? Never works! (And I’ve had similar experiences on stage with a director who also acted in his shows… but only in minor roles did it work. Kinda.) It’s because a director needs to be able to look at things as they are happening, not afterwards though a playback of the shot.
There’s also an element of being TOO involved with a project that you can’t weed away what needs to in order to elevate it to the next level. That’s the case here in “City of Trees” – I wish Swarens would’ve pulled it back and focused on one or two of them, and perhaps the film may have been better.
With a rather dismal rating of 1.0 / 5.0, you may be wondering: what is actually good about “City of Trees”? Well, as I alluded above, the script itself isn’t bad – at the heart. Trust me, it still needs a lot of work to be great! Part of the pacing problems are the long, drawn out conversations that don’t really go anywhere. Sure, sometimes we need those awkward silence moments, such as after the ugly-sweater party when Aisnley brings Sophie a beer and before she breaks the ice. But because nearly every scene was drawn out in a similar fashion, we lost the beauty of that one moment.
The other area where I felt the urge to give credit is with the acting itself. The connection between Alexandra Swarens as Ainsley and Olivia Buckle as Sophie actually works out well! There is an innocence to their slow building romance that comes across nicely. In fact, Swarens should’ve given up her director’s chair to someone else and focused on acting because that’s where her talent shows best. I’ll even give her back the job of writer too, because I suspect that a lot of “City of Trees” plot has roots in her own personal history. It’s just unfortunate that the bits that worked got lost amid all the mess of everything that went wrong.
If you read the handful of reviews over at IMDb, most people seem to love this film! (Yes, I’m just as shocked as you!) So after my first viewing, I tried to see if my view may have been slanted somehow. As such, I have to confess that “City of Trees” was the last queer Christmas film that I watched in preparation for this year’s reviews. That alone could be grounds to skew my perception of the film. Yet unfortunately after watching the film twice, I have to stand by my seemingly harsh review. If you enjoy watching a slow-moving story and especially are hoping to see a Christmas film that features a lesbian storyline, then you may want to give “City of Trees” a watch. However, my advice is to find something else to watch instead!
Queer Relevance of “City of Trees”
I have to confess that my film reviews typically focus on films featuring gay or bisexual men. “City of Trees” is something fresh – it features a lesbian romance at it’s heart, a woman-loving-woman film. This queer Christmas film is about a woman who returns home over the holidays and connects with someone from high school and they end up falling for each other. Despite my noted issues with the film and the script, the blossoming romance between Ainsley and Sophie is natural and builds up over time; it isn’t superficial or forced. At heart, this is most certainly a lesbian film, and is definitely queer relevant.