In 1596, Anne, who is deaf, is a young girl who is bullied by her household maids, who consider her odd and uncanny for her “affliction.” Other children also consider her strange and call her a witch, and she has grown up timid and ashamed of who she is.
Looking for solace in the woods, she comes across a magical oak tree that is a portal to the modern-day. She goes through the portal, where she observes two girls her own age in the present day — Jo and Rachel — who she meets after a near-death experience.
The three girls are fascinated by one another, building a rapport and helping Anne learn how to read and write. Anne’s progress opens up a whole new vista of possibility — and gives her the means to stand up for herself in her own time.
Writer-director Celine Cotran — who adapted the story from the popular novel written by Enid Richemont — has crafted a handsome, elegantly rendered family film that marries a charming sense of magical realism with an empowering coming-of-age narrative.
The scale of the storytelling and the balance of fantasy with history is highly ambitious, especially for a short aimed for families and older children. But the film is aided by the strong backbone of its story, which renders its powerful, eternal themes of self-acceptance and personal power in a fascinating, dynamic and creative way.
The sense of magic and fantasy begins with the lovely visuals, which unfurl with a disciplined elegance that wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy epic or historical narrative. The stately camerawork and pristine cinematography give both eras that the film portrays a lovely timelessness. But this isn’t just classicism for quality’s sake: it also emphasizes the idea that young children across the ages have always struggled with being different and being shamed for those differences.
Young performer Miranda Beinart-Smith leads a fine cast, portraying Anne with an intelligent watchfulness and subtle vulnerability that allows viewers to empathize but never asks them to feel sorry for her. She’s an inherently intrepid, resilient character, but it isn’t until she arrives in the present and meets two helpful, kind and equally smart young girls that she gets the key to transcending her circumstances.
In both its scope of narrative and its polished production values, The Time Tree” can feel like a feature compressed into a short film. But its visual beauty and emotional arc are so rich and profound — and the themes and timeframe so imaginative — that its wide-ranging nature works in its favor. Its lessons, of course, are classic for both children’s storytelling and for life: it can be hard to be different, but finding our voice and self-expression is essential to the process of accepting ourselves.