The Better Angels portrays a young Abraham Lincoln and aims to unveil the factors that shaped the president in his formative years. At the end of its 95 minutes, the answer is clear: trees.
So, so many trees. Always towering, with the camera aimed skyward. To set the scene of 1817 Indiana? Trees. Abe’s mother gets sick? Trees. Winter arrives? More fucking trees.
The film also has a stronger-than-passing resemblance to The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s 2011 audience- and critic-divider that tells the story of a Texas family via nebulae, dinosaurs, and a lot of whispering about “grace” versus “nature.” It’s not coincidental: The first-time writer-director of The Better Angels, A.J. Edwards, has been a collaborator and protege of Malick’s; Malick is even given the usually irrelevant “Presented by” credit.
His name needn’t have been mentioned, because Edwards’ debut is so unabashedly imitative it’s nearly parodic. It’s not nearly as abstract as Tree of Life, but 8-year-old Abe (Braydon Denney) has a stoic, hard-to-please father (Jason Clarke) and a loving mother (Brit Marling, unfortunately) whose actions scream “grace.” (Essentially a 19th-century hippie, Marling’s Nancy Lincoln seems like she’s on a long, strange trip as she marvels at a wondrous grasshopper on her hand or drenches herself in the wondrous rain.)
The film opens with a quote from Lincoln attributing his achievements to his “angel mother,” but here it’s not clear which one he means. After Nancy dies from “milk sickness” and Abe’s father leaves him and his sister to fend for themselves for a while, Dad eventually returns with a new wife, a widow named Sarah (Diane Kruger). She’s toting some kids, too, and although the two families aren’t exactly the Brady Bunch, Sarah becomes a nurturing and encouraging presence in Abraham’s life.
This all requires a fair amount of reading between the lines, though—very, very few lines. Being an A+ Malickian student, Edwards doesn’t lean on much dialogue. Combined with Matthew J. Lloyd’s crisp, black and white cinematography and Edwards’ plentiful lens flares and upward—forever upward—shots, this hush does at times have an ethereal effect. This story isn’t presented as narrative so much as a series of memories, which will only distract a viewer expecting linearity.
Worse, the lack of lippin’ (as Abe’s cousin, providing twangy voice-over, might say) leaves young Abe largely unrevealed. We discover that he taught himself to write and had an intellectual curiosity that exceeded his parents’ knowledge, which seems a given. And he worked hard chopping logs and tilling soil like the rest of his family. Mostly, though, Denney’s Abraham stares. And Hanan Townshend’s score swells. Oy.
The Better Angels becomes a little less inert when Sarah shows up, and Abe and his father have a moment of tenderness in the final scenes that is quietly shocking. But by the film’s close, you may forget that the story is about Lincoln, instead of simply about a boy.