“Look at that tree. See where it’s coming from. Right up outta that cement! Didn’t nobody plant it. Didn’t ask the cement to grow. It just couldn’t help growing so much it just pushed that old cement out of the way…Why they could cut that ole tree right down to the ground and a root would push up someplace else in the cement.”
These lines, spoken by Francie Nolan’s starry-eyed and aim-to-please father, set the stage for the rest of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A coming-of-age story at heart, Elia Kazan’s film adaption of the 1943 novel by the same name follows the young Francie Nolan as her and her family deal with poverty, alcoholism, sacrifices, and death in a tenement in Brooklyn during the first couple decades of the 20th century. Like the novel, the film brought the struggles of impoverished families to light for a wide audience, showing that poverty was prevalent even before the Great Depression. The actors do a very good job at playing up their humility and humbleness, easily tugging at the heartstrings at the audience. If nothing else, this film played on the pathos of the audience, opening their eyes to the pitiful state of impoverished Brooklyn and causing them to see poverty as a vicious cycle rather than the fault of the impoverished person.
The tree that is growing out of the cement is a metaphor for hope and how the lower-class of Brooklyn survives (fighting for sun, space, and air). As they chop it down, the state of the Nolan household becomes even worse. All Francie has left to comfort her is her school and the library. This is where her father makes one last-ditch attempt at obtaining the dream he keeps painting for Francie. He lies about their address so that Francie can attend the middle-class school, causing Francie to declare that her “cup runneth over” (probably the most heart-wrenching line of the film). The humanity and gratefulness of the Nolan family strike audiences as they put a name and a face to poverty.
The film teaches the lessons of pragmatism, work ethic, finding beauty in the small things, and learning when to let go. It makes us think about childhood and how poverty forces people to grow up too fast. It challenges the idea of innocence and the “American Dream”. The film asks, “What does it mean to be happy? What does that entail?”
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it entails hope, hard work, forgiveness, and drive. Happiness is not expected, nor is it given. It must be found and earned for the Nolan family. They truly take nothing for granted, but they do appreciate what little they have, a lesson anyone who watches this movie can learn. This film helped to show that the plight of impoverished Americans is nothing they have earned nor is it anything they can help. But for the Nolan’s, there is not a day that goes by where they don’t appreciate how far they have come.