August 6, 2020  (Web Review)

Under the Great Oak

(2018) 53 min. DVD: $24.99 ($299 w/PPR). Passion River Films (avail. from most distributors).

Reviewer rating: 2.5/4

The township of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, settled in 1717, for the last 619 years or so has had as its village centerpiece a gigantic oak tree, once a flourishing majestic thing of natural beauty. Victimized by years of incompetent maintenance, the great oak is now officially dead. Concerned now with the safety hazards the tree now poses, the quaint town is about to see its most prized natural and historical possession be cut down and hauled off. So begins this empathetic but amateurish documentary. Although Under the Great Oak’s heart is certainly in the right place, this isn’t so much a nature conservationist’s film as one concerned with historical preservation, in the sense that the tree had become a point of historical pride for the town. Yet even in a purely historical sense, the film is deeply flawed: from the endless succession of interviewees—mostly from the local church and Presbyterian community—we get plenty of talking-head discussion about the town’s emotional ties to the tree’s history. But there’s no real comprehensive effort to uncover the history of the tree itself and all the different generations of Basking Ridge townsfolk who lived in its shadow. What’s worse, in scenes from a local gala tribute we’re subjected to the town’s local solo acoustic singer-songwriters, who turn up to pay tribute to the tree with their milquetoast arboreal odes. Another narrative strand in the film that was given short shrift concerned the changing cultural face of Basking Ridge, with hints of the town’s ethnic makeup beginning to shift. You get the sense that some townspeople fear that their Norman Rockwellian image might die out much like the old tree. At one point, we’re informed in an onscreen side note that a local Muslim group tried to buy a local venue for a proposed mosque but were turned down by township authorities. No doubt rooting out the reasons behind this decision would have made a more interesting investigation had the filmmaker chose to go that route. Instead, what we have is a pleasant but insubstantial attempt to memorialize a tree. Not Recommended. Aud: C. P. (M. Sandlin)