Regardless of where a person lives, one of the mainstays of Christmas in ANY town is Christmas tree lots. These seasonal locations are where trees of all different shapes, sizes, and names are put on display with the hopes of brightening up a family’s Christmas. These locations have become so much a staple of Christmas that it’s more than a little easy to pass them by without giving anything more than a lingering thought to who is actually making them function. The documentary Tree Man changes this by offering up the story of one man who has dedicated his life to preserving the importance of selling Christmas trees as well as the various sacrifices and passion required to do so.
In Tree Man, documentarians Jon Reiner and Brad Rothschild follow Francois, a family man from Quebec who each year travels to New York City where he sets up shop as one of the city’s most beloved Christmas tree vendors. Throughout the course of a month, the cameras capture everything that goes into being a tree man, including hard work and endless amounts of love, both of which Francois tirelessly pours into his craft.
Tree Man instantly earns its credibility as a documentary looking to show the importance of what Francois does and how much goes into making his professional passion successful. The film doesn’t shy away from speaking to the toughness of the job, which includes the hazard of inclement weather, the overall task of living in a van for a month, being apart from loved ones during one of most family-oriented times of the year, and even the possibility of the trees themselves not arriving. Francois is shown experiencing all of these, and yet it’s incredibly inspiring to see him still maintain the same drive and excitement about his craft and what it means to him and so many others. This is beautifully captured in the film’s opening in which his mixed emotions about leaving his family, thoughts of past generations of friends who did the same thing, and the sheer exhilaration that the journey to New York brings flood him all at once.
Watching Francois doing what he loves is nothing but heartwarming, especially with the realization of just how much he and other tree vendors are instrumental in making the spirit of the season happen. There’s plenty of footage featuring New Yorkers who flat out state that they simply don’t consider it Christmas until Francois sets up his shop. These are his repeat customers who consider buying a tree from him, and also visiting with him, an actual Christmas tradition. All of it is beyond touching and definitely fuels the fire inside of Francois to keep returning each year. It’s a testament to just how beloved he and his work are when an elderly lady offers him the use of her shower on a daily basis and when a longtime customer who recently moved to Queens still makes the trek to get a tree from Francois. “It’s not just about a tree anymore,” the customer says at one point.
Eventually, Tree Man segues into the introduction of other tree men and their own stories, which tends to feel a bit distracting. Likewise, the film insists on showing the lives of the various people helping Francois during his time in New York City. All of it is sweet and heartwarming, but too there’s simply too much time spent on them rather than sticking the film’s center subject. Likewise, the pitfalls of being a woman in the field, and other moments, such as when Jason (Francios’s teenage assistant) is late one morning, are the times when Tree Man tries too hard by attempting to shine a spotlight on too many things. However, seeing Jason’s relationship with Francois is beautiful and moving, and even its scattered moments Tree Man manages to provide more insight into what goes into existing and thriving in this particular industry. No matter how scattered its focus may get at times, Tree Man always makes sure to go back to its main subject and all the love and joy he brings.
Although it’s touched on a bit, there’s not so much of a look at the importance, symbolism, and overall cultural importance of the Christmas tree itself and the power and universality it possesses. However, a documentary such as Tree Man has but one aim: to honor the individual responsible for putting those trees in families’ homes. This is a fine documentary in its own right that’s made even more endearing when serving as a tribute to an individual who makes people’s Christmases better and happier.