French writer-director Julie Bertuccelli ("Since Otar Left") uses the scrubbed topography of Queensland, Australia, to mostly eloquent effect, although her mystical symbols can be as on-the-nose as her dialogue.
Drawing the narrative from a child's-eye-view novel (Judy Pascoe's "Our Father Who Art in a Tree"), she makes young Simone -- played with feral intensity by Morgana Davies -- a strong presence, but shifts the central focus to her mother, a woman drifting in her grief.
With her Modigliani mystery, Charlotte Gainsbourg brings aching melancholy to the role of Dawn. As compelling as she is to watch, though, the character's passivity saps the film of energy, especially in its first half, which is all but devoid of tension. Her involvement with a new man (Marton Csokas) shakes things up: A mother-daughter conflict takes shape around a dead man's memory. Dawn and Simone's love is also a rivalry, set in sharp relief by the harsh, remote locale.
It's clear from the start who is stronger, and that a surrender is in store.
"The Tree." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.