“The Family Tree” is a romantic holiday melodrama from writer/ director Jorge Ameer. Set in Panama, the film concerns Victor (Keith Roenke), who works in an animal rescue shelter. One night he rescues a man, Roy (Michael Joseph Nelson), who has been mugged. Victor is smitten with the handsome stranger, but Roy is not gay. However, Roy is undocumented, and Victor proposes they enter into a civil union so Roy can remain in the country. While Roy agrees and the guys cohabitate, Roy eventually falls in love with Alina (Anaïs Lucia), Victor’s best friend. When the couple faces a delicate situation, they ask the brokenhearted Victor for help, and he agrees.
Caring for lost dogs and lost souls, gay man learns tough lesson about love
Keith Roenke gives a sincere, heartfelt performance as the selfless Victor who grapples with loss and longing. The actor chatted with Gay City News about “The Family Tree,” a film that – full disclosure — I was a consultant on.
GARY M. KRAMER: “The Family Tree” is a holiday film, and Victor finds meaning in the traditions and lights of Christmas. Are you big on the holidays? What can you say about making a Christmas romance?
KEITH ROENKE: I am definitely big on the holidays. Victor took it to another place, and it was fun to shoot in Panama and hear about their Christmas traditions. I grew up in a small town and a Protestant-Christian family. Christmas was a big thing — decorating the house, etc. — I was able to feed off that vibe, recalling keepsakes from my childhood. I tried to lean into that and what the holidays meant for Victor.
KRAMER: What are your observations on Victor? He is both vulnerable and sensitive. There is also a suggestion he is depressed.
ROENKE: Victor is an eternal optimist despite his family situation — he lost his mother and has a tense relationship with his father. That is why he is so committed to his work, his animals, and his friends — he’s overcompensating for his depression. I personally have had small bouts of depression, but I also wanted to keep Victor’s optimism and the life Victor wants. He accepts that falling in love with Roy was not sustainable. It was fantasizing and wanting a best scenario, but also respecting that Roy would share himself only to the point he could.
KRAMER: The film offers a very fluid portrait of sexuality. Can you talk about how you see the sexuality of the characters, Victor in particular?
ROENKE: I like that Jorge [Ameer] makes “straight guys and the gay men who love them films.” He talks about gay and straight, and there is a spectrum for love. There are people who are surprised they fall in love with people of the same sex. I saw Victor as pansexual from an early age. His relationship with women, including Alina, didn’t work out. He knows where he’s at, but he has a conflict with his father. In his own acceptance of himself, I never saw this as Victor’s coming out story. He knew whom he loved but was never able to announce it. He tries telling his father to open that gate and it’s shut down quickly. But I think Victor is looking for love and is open to all of it.
KRAMER: Victor is heartbroken but incredibly selfless. Roy and Alina ask Victor to do something rather significant. Without giving anything away, do you embrace playing melodrama?
ROENKE: That was a Jorge Ameer plot point. It’s an awkward situation but we made it a beautiful scene. There was passion between the characters. It’s legit that it was just Victor selflessly finding his purpose in this scenario. With the melodrama, I tried to take in the emotion of losing someone you want to be your partner in life. I hope that came across. It is never great to feel pain, they were moving scenes for me.
KRAMER: Victor talks about fate and destiny and signs. Are you a believer in such things?
ROENKE: Absolutely. I was small town guy who grew up in the Protestant Church. I turned away from it and was agnostic. I’m now a certified teacher/ trainer of Kundalini yoga and that connected me to my spiritual side, the ethereal, passing moments and chance meetings. That side of Victor came naturally to me.
KRAMER: Victor finds comfort not just in Christmas, but in animals, perhaps more than people. What gives you comfort?
ROENKE: I am an animal lover. I have a 16 year-old cat named George that has lived with me most of my adult live. He’s my spiritual partner in many ways. I have always had spiritual connections, whether with animals or people. I have a thousand people I can run into and give a massive hug because we’ve had awesome experiences together.
THE FAMILY TREE | Directed by Jorge Ameer | Hollywood Independents | Opens Nov. 6 through Laemmle Virtual Cinema | watch.laemmle.com
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