“It’s so silly. Who’s not getting a day older?”
That’s more than a rhetorical question from Joicie Appell, the actress who plays an elderly Kansas woman in a new movie called “The Tree.”
“You have this chance in life to be uniquely you. Nobody else has that chance. Be as good as you can, make the best of it, do what’s right and you forget about aging,” Appell told Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard, in a conversation about “The Tree.”
The film, from Overland Park-based Never2Late Productions, tells the story of Dorothy Thorpe. The story challenges societal notions of what it means to age, addressing the idea that at some point, elderly people are stripped of their adulthood, and with it, their right to do as they choose.
In the movie, Appell embodies the human we’ll all become once we’ve lived long enough: still completely who we’ve always been, but just enough removed from the work of building a career and raising a family to seem not worth listening to by those who are still neck-deep in the action.
Appell’s character, Dorothy, age 88, is a widow. She has lived in the same small Kansas town for 65 years. But, of course, as individuals change over time, so do their surroundings.
In the first scenes, Dorothy attends the funeral of an old friend, learns her doctor has retired and been replaced by an insensitive younger man (played by Matt Dunehoo), and hears that she should junk her aged car.
Dorothy seems only slightly troubled by these developments. Mostly she’s preoccupied by the idea of reuniting with her childhood best friend back in Indiana near an enormous oak tree that was their meeting place.
She says to a friend in the film: “There’s another part of me that I can’t seem to get off my mind these days.” That is, she remains a complex human being, not the non-entity that mechanics and doctors might consider her to be.
When Dorothy decides to climb in her old, red car and drive 500 miles toward the tree, the neighbors (real-life couple Laura Kirk and Paul Fellers) are divided about whether to let her go or stop her. The two stand in for the cultural schism: Let elderly people live until they die, or protect them from themselves if at all possible.
About the trip, Dorothy tells the couple, “It’s now or never, and I’m just not ready for never.”
So, they agree to feed her cat and then they wave goodbye.
The film’s executive film producer, Mary Pruitt, said she knows that when people try to tease out the theme of her third and most recent movie, the word “empowerment” will come up. However, she said, that’s more of a “word du jour” than a term that really applies to her work.
“When I think about ‘The Tree’ and its overarching theme, words like community, friendship, and constancy come to mind,” Pruitt said. “And instead of the raised fist of victory that so often accompanies words like ‘empowerment,’ in ‘The Tree’ it is the extended hand of empathy that we hoped to personify.”
Written and produced with her husband, Stephen Pruitt, “The Tree” is not just about the physical journey Dorothy takes in her 1999 Pontiac from Wamego, Kansas, to Terre Haute, Indiana, but the journey of living which isn’t done until it’s done.
The character is based on Pruitt’s mother-in-law, who died in 2014. Stephen Pruitt said he wanted to stay as true to his mother as possible when it came to her manner of speaking and the actions that she takes.
“There are touches of her everywhere. The car that she drives (in the movie) was actually my mom’s car. The furniture in the bedroom was mom’s furniture,” he said. “A lot of the things the actress says in the film were actual lines Mom used to say.”
Things like referring to tiny towns as “grease spots” on a map.
The story was filmed mostly in Kansas and Missouri. It’s won several film festival awards, including five best feature or Audience Choice awards (namely at the Kansas City Film Festival and Knoxville Film Festival), was shown at the Carmel International Film Festival, and played at two Academy-Award nominating film festivals (the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and the St. Louis International Film Festival).
Such recognition would be a spectacular accomplishment for any filmmaker, but for the Pruitts, it’s extraordinary. The couple began teaching themselves how to make movies just 10 years ago.
A movie-goer would have no reason to think it was produced entirely by a professor of economics and finance (Stephen Pruitt) and a woman who spent much of her adult life as a stay-at-home mom.
“It’s easy to begin to feel as if you truly have no relevance,” Mary Pruitt said. “We wanted to show how Dorothy, just by living her life, was able to share her life and be instrumental in basically changing the view and perspective of the people she comes in contact with.”
Mary Pruitt said the movie is largely about people respecting each other’s autonomy. And yet, “you don’t live in isolation. You are autonomous, but it’s caring for those around you and allowing them to care for you that makes (living) a really wonderful experience.”
The Pruitts’ productions have taken just this kind of teamwork. The two have put their nearly 37 years of marriage to the test working side by side for weeks at a time, but Mary said they’ve mostly enjoyed the time together.
Filmmaking was never something she thought she’d enter into, though she said she can’t recall what she had imagined doing after her two daughters were grown. She pointed out that life rarely unfolds the way we think it will.
Similarly, Appell told Kaufmann that she had planned on being the best wife and mother possible, then she planned on being the best English teacher possible, but what she has devoted herself to for decades is acting.
Both women have been unexpectedly captivated by telling stories in their own medium.
“Stories,” Mary Pruitt said, “give us the opportunity to be and do any number of things we choose, and therein lies the beauty of the imagination. And if we have the mind to do so and prove effective at our task, we can take others along with us.”
Joicie Appell and Stephen Pruitt spoke with KCUR’s Central Standard (you can listen to the full episode here), and Mary Pruitt spoke with KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf, who you can follow on Twitter @annekniggendorf.