Reviewed by: Brian Nigro
Starring: James Cromwell, Tantoo Cardinal, Joseph Ashton, Graham Greene, Willow John, James Rae / Director: Richard Friedenberg / Released by: Paramount Pictures
“The Education of Little Tree” can be summed up in one word: Identity. Namely, American Indian identity. A lot of Christian audiences may avoid this fairly clean, PG-rated movie for that very reason, which is too bad—because any New Age or mystical subtext is at the end (all three or four lines of narration’s worth). The “education” here is purely cultural, plain and simple.
An orphan named Little Tree (Joseph Ashton) is sent to live with with Grandma (Tantoo Cardinal) and Grandpa (James Cromwell from Babe) in the wilderness in 1935. Grandpa teaches Little Tree (illegaly, of course) how to brew beer and whiskey. He also utters several crude phrases, in effect teaching Little Tree how to swear, though he cautions Little Tree not to talk that way.
In a purely obligatory appearance, Hollywood’s resident Indian Graham Greene portrays Little Tree’s uncle. His only role is to be the wise elder who tells Little Tree stories of how the government signed treaties with Indians, and then proceeded to kill them anyway. (That’s obviously true, by the way, for anyone who still believes our government followed any of the Ten Commendments in dealing with Native Americans.)
“Little Tree” might scare or upset younger children with its depictions of bigotry and prejudice. Little Tree’s family attends church each week, and in one scene, the minister invites a local politician—a rich white businessmen who shakes everyone’s hand except for the Indians. The politician’s wife, meanwhile, sits in the car and flicks cigarette butts onto the lawn.
There’s also Little Tree’s friendship with a little girl whose father doesn’t like “injuns.” He whips her with a belt when Little Tree tries to give her a pair of moccasins.
The State Welfare Board, meanwhile, finds Grandpa an unfit parent for Little Tree, and so he is sent to prison—actually, it’s a boarding school, but it sure looks and feels like prison. Prejudice continues, as the headmistress asks him, “Do you speak Indian?” And, the prison warden—er, principal—assigns him a new American name, Joshua. No more Little Tree, he’s Joshua from now on.
“Education of Little Tree” is not devoid of offensive material—it portrays Christians as bigoted, dishonest, and cruel. The language is not squeaky-clean, either. There is also brief shower nudity from the prison scene—and the moral ambiguity of teaching a minor how to brew alcohol. If the aforementioned material doesn’t offend you, why not try on Little Tree’s moccasins for size?