Jack and the Treehouse, a Pittsburgh production debuting at the Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival, understands this feeling well.
Besides Jack and the Treehouse, the 2021 PIFF event, taking place Thu., Aug. 5-Sun., Aug. 8 at the Parkway Theater in McKees Rocks, will spotlight a number of locally produced films, in addition to national and international entries from as far as France, Singapore, and Australia. Described as an “indie film festival by and for indie filmmakers,” PIFF provides a platform for emerging filmmakers by screening a wide selection of feature-length and short films ranging from narrative to documentary.
Other Pittsburgh-made works making their debut at the festival include Steel-Man by director Mike Palmer, a horror film about a local superhero who does battle with both zombies and crime bosses at a mall comic book convention.
Jack and the Treehouse is the latest from writer-director-producer James Schneider, a Pittsburgh film veteran. It finds 10-year-old Jack at the first real crossroads in his life. He’s spent his whole childhood in the woods of Western Pennsylvania, learning the ways of his family’s land from his grandfather. But when his grandfather dies and an accident puts his dad in a walking boot, the land becomes one big dollar sign. So his dad decides to sell, and Jack decides to rebel by ensconcing himself in the treehouse his grandfather built many years ago, refusing to come down.
According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, the film is a personal one for Schneider, whose own son lost his grandfather at a young age. He also based Jack’s actions on Julia Butterfly Hill, an environmentalist who spent two years living in a California redwood tree to protest unethical logging practices.
The key then, with such an intimate film, is finding an anchor point, and Jack is a good one. As the title character, Eamonn McElfresh is asked to do a lot for his age, at times putting on a one-man show up in the treehouse. He does an admirable job, balancing sympathetic, smart, curious, and rebellious into a character that feels fully formed very quickly.
And while Dave Mansueto is often reduced to a too simplistic antagonist in the fight as Jack’s father, Cotter Smith turns in a small but fantastic performance as Jack’s Pap. All small gestures and notes of finding life’s pleasures in the simplest of things, he represents much of what the film is best at.
This is a small, local film, and that shows on occasion. Yet, a feel for a place and a world will always shine through, and that’s what Schneider displays here. His best moments are when the camera captures the sadness stemming from nature’s beauty coming undone. Cast in a beautiful sepia tone, the film depicts the serenity of a wooded area interrupted by the loud, rude sound of a contractor driving his truck through, or the piercing sound of a chainsaw cutting through the peaceful chirping of birds.
You ultimately feel for Jack. He’s one kid, trying to save one patch of trees, and Jack and the Treehouse treats him as what he is; a scared kid holding onto the ties to his family, his memories, and that freedom that comes from being up in a treehouse, living on your own terms.
Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival. Thu., Aug. 5-Sun., Aug. 8. Parkway Theater.
644 Broadway Ave., McKees Rocks. $13, $30 for a three-day pass. pghindie.com