Ainsley is an angsty twenty-something returning to the small town she came from for the holidays. With the exception of a few people she’s kept in touch with after leaving, no one in town knows much about her life, save the excited and proud snippets they get from her mother about Ainsley’s photography job in Los Angeles.
Sophie comes up in conversation before we ever meet her, a popular cheerleader in high school who, from the perspective of everyone talking about her, has grown up into a kind, empathetic adult. I mean, let’s talk about checking all the swoon-worthy woman boxes. Between helping Ainsley’s mom with her flowerbeds during the frost to her work preserving old trees in town, it’s hard to dislike her–if not fall in love with her yourself.
That doesn’t stop Ainsley though, set on typecasting Sophie as the girl she believed her to be even then. It’s what happens to many of us when we return to our hometowns after moving away, an inability to allow people to grow, adopting our memories of them onto their current personality, even if it’s an unfair projection. It’s a little bit jealousy, a little bit unrequited love, and a whole lot of making Ainsley feel like she’s stepped back into the body of her teenage self where Sophie Michaels is concerned.
Like any great romance movie, the characters are unexpectedly thrown together. Small towns make this easily plausible, and between Sophie being at Ainsley’s house most nights to help with the flowers and multiple run-ins at the grocery store, they find themselves inhabiting the same small world, yet both continue to make an effort to prolong the interactions. It’s heart-patteringly cute and nerve-wracking at the same time, since we don’t initially know much about what’s going on with Sophie’s love life.
The Technical Side
While it doesn’t have the production value of a mainstream release, in the end, I think that serves to heighten the realism portrayed in the movie.
Because of the small town location, I never felt like I was missing out on larger sets. The movie shifts through town with varying closely-shot scenes that felt wholly authentic and organic.
There’s one scene where the characters are far away from the camera but the dialogue overlays as if they should be closer, but it’s the only instance I noticed that took me out of the moment.
The lesbian cozy fashion asthetic is on point for both characters. Comfy, oversized sweaters. Pea coats. Beanies. It’s all the greatest hits of a tumblr blog, and I lived for every new scene to see what the characters were wearing.
My Favourite Parts
There’s an awkwardness and discomfort in some of their conversations that makes their budding relationship feel hyper-realistic. The dialogue’s not polished, and the lines aren’t perfect, but they’re right because they’re real, and I felt like those could have been words I’ve said or felt at some point in my life.
The story is about Ainsley, but the movie quickle fleshes out that perspective is a finicky thing, and how two people can remember the same situation quite differently. Ainsley felt shunned by her peers during high school, but Sophie remembers a world where Ainsley felt unapproachable because she seemed like she had it all figured out.
There is what I would qualify as an exceptional, but not gratuitous, love scene. It shows where independent movies can shine, expressing intense emotional connection without being shot through the lens of the male gaze, as is too often seen in mainstream women loving women (wlw) films.
A lot of wlw movies have some bigger trope to hook the viewer, but City of Trees relies on a character-rich story about growing up, developing confidence in yourself, and learning to appreciate the good things already in your life.
Coming back home for the holidays can be hard, especially when it’s your own baggage holding you down. This movie unabashedly makes space for the somber moments along with the hopeful ones, but it’s ultimately a feel good holiday romance movie that will be in my permanent rotation.
Where To Watch City of Trees
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Bits and Bobs
- Director: Alexandra Swarens
- Alexandra Swarens: Executive Producer
- Cory Xenos: Executive Producer
- Laura Thomas: Producer
- Gloria Junn: Associate Producer
- Writers: Alexandra Swarens
- Alexandra Swarens: Ainsley Sadler
- Olivia Buckle: Sophie Michaels
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