In the heartfelt “Director’s Statement” video Belton Mouras, Jr. shares on the website promoting his beautiful, deeply emotional and spiritually transcendent short film “Mickey’s Tree,” the multi-talented writer, producer, director and film composer offers an intimate glimpse of the inspirational real life bond shared by him and his beloved dog Mickey that inspired the project – which earned an “Official Selection” accolade at the Palm Springs International Short Fest.
Mickey, Mouras explains, was a rescue animal that entered his life at point of personal struggle, and the two bonded over walks in the woods where they encountered a uniquely shaped tree whose roots were hanging perilously over a cliff above a river. He felt that he and Mickey could relate to the tree’s remarkable survival in that setting. He shares how Mickey’s friendship helped shift his attitude and change his perspective on life, and he began to contemplate the reality that though he technically rescued Mickey, in the end, his beloved dog rescued him emotionally.
It’s certainly not necessary for viewers to know the real-life history of Mouras and Mickey to get their hearts, minds and souls immersed in the fictional story he created. Yet knowing a bit of the real story allows viewers to bring a certain extra insight to watching the film. As we follow the lead character, 18-year-old Mario (soulfully and poignantly portrayed by charismatic newcomer Deniro Gomez) through the joys of those mystical walks and quiet moments with the dog he calls “best friend” in the woods, and ultimately the heartbreak of Mickey’s illness and death, we can imagine Mouras reliving his own time with the Mickey’s real-life counterpart.
As he takes us through this journey, however, his intention is less about autobiography than giving us a sad but ultimately redemptive and triumphant story that we can connect our own experiences of losing loved ones in our own lives to. Perhaps the most touching and joyful scene is the one where Mario, despite knowing that Mickey is in her final days, decides to create the special memory of feeding her a decadent meal of a French fry, spoonful of ice cream and a bite of his burger. Mickey’s ability to gobble up everything with such delight is a great symbol about living to the fullest even in the face of great challenges.
Driven by intensely passionate, realistic and heartfelt performances by Gomez, Deborah Bromley (who brings grace, wisdom and compassion to her role as Mario’s mom Maria) and David Hines as Mario’s ex-military and fellow dog lover uncle, “Mickey’s Tree” would be a great triumph even if the story were limited to the scenario about the love of a teenage boy for his dog. It would be a powerful narrative about the impact pets have on our lives and the importance of having a supportive, loving family during times of distress.
Yet Mouras’ deeper genius as a storyteller is revealed through his subtle introductions of the many themes he artfully infuses into this basic premise. First is the importance of art therapy and inner child therapy in healing from early trauma and painful losses, both introduced by Mario’s therapist (Richard Lui). One of the most powerfully cathartic scenes in the movie finds the therapist shouting encouragement as Mario splatters paint over a huge canvass in a studio saying “I miss Mickey so much!” The therapist points to his heart and reminds him where Mickey’s spirit and memories will always be.
Mouras creates two other tearjerking moments when Mario confronts his inner child, the first time during a scary childhood moment where older Mario promises to never leave him, and the second after Mickey’s passing when Mario hastily grabs a bottle of pills and runs out to Mickey’s Tree, possibly with the intention of killing himself. The inner child is there to remind Mario that he promised to never leave. This shifts his mindset profoundly and gives him a reason to carry on.
From the first scene of the film where Mario is talking to his therapist on, the narrative is grounded on the loss of his dad a year ago, a time of heavy trauma, hospitalization and ongoing recovery that is helped along by adopting Mickey and forging that friendship in the first place. Mouras’ keeps the mystery of exactly what happened to the dad going and, impressively, never says the word suicide, even as Mario’s uncle mentions that Johnny (Mario’s dad, presumably Uncle’s brother) came home with terrible PTSD and he wished he could have helped him more. In the sweetly melancholy scene where Mario, Maria and Uncle scatter Mickey’s ashes (by the tree, naturally), Uncle imparts words of great wisdom that ensures that Mario will ultimately heal and carry on: “You honor Mickey by honoring yourself.”
Perhaps the most magical/mystical element in “Mickey’s Dream” is introduced by the dual character of Eve/Bella (played charmingly by Michelle Macasero). As Eve, she appears mysteriously by the tree twice early on, the first time somehow knowing Mickey’s name, and saying perhaps the dog and the tree are kindred spirits and the second, attuning Mario’s ears to the whistling of unseen mockingbirds and relaying the importance message “Don’t die with the music in you.” He offers to walk part way back home with her, but she disappears. Interestingly she wears a cross country jersey from a high school that Mario learns doesn’t have such a team. This and her mentioning that she knows a lot about Mario is Mouras’ coolly subtle way of saying Eve is an angel without using the word itself.
Macasero later appears (with a different haircut and shyer personality) as Bella, an emotionally guarded newcomer to the art therapy class. Despite Mario’s noticing her dead-on resemblance to Eve, she’s less forthcoming about anything beyond the fact that she’s a musician. At first she turns down his friendly invitation to hang out, but over time a relationship develops – one that, we learn in one of the film’s final touching scenes, will last quite a long time. Eve later joins Mario on the wood bench by the tree that Uncle created in Mickey’s honor. When he quotes Eve’s line about not letting the music die in you, she doesn’t recognize it but appreciates the sentiment and how it applies to her. She then begins whistling and creates a fascinating call and response vocal pattern with the mockingbirds. Mario calls her “the animal whisperer” and she sweetly corrects him: “Animal whistler.”
Mouras’ lifelong passion for and years of professional work as a composer/musician comes to light in Bella, who brings a pink guitar to the studio where Mario is painting, and sings a verse of a song presumably titled “Don’t Let the Music Die Within You.” Mouras gives us many wondrous moments and meaningful words of wisdom from these characters along the way that are likely to resonate and prompt serious reflection over time.
Just as the film itself engages on a multitude of emotional and spiritual levels, the soundtrack Mouras has created to accompany “Mickey’s Tree” seems designed to take the experience to an even deeper, more dynamic place. While the 12-track album features a few pieces that appear in the film – most notably, the jazzy piano romp “Mickey’s Swag,” which accompanies Mario and Mickey’s walks in the woods – Mouras presents it as a standalone project full of thematically relevant vocal tracks that range stylistically from folk pop and jazz to infectious mainstream pop and whimsical rap/hip-hop. The single promoted from the soundtrack is titled “Don’t Let the Music Die,” but doesn’t resemble Bella’s version at all; rather it’s a fusion of jazz, African flavored vibes, exotic percussion, soundscapes and chants featuring Ann Roach on lead vocals, Otis Mourning on saxophone and Keith A. Stafford singlehandedly providing an intoxicating four part harmony on the low, haunting, syncopated backing vocals.
When you get to the end of “Mickey’s Tree,” it should be clear that for these 40 minutes, your heart was in the hands of a passionate multi-talented artist whose love of animals has also found expression in myriad ways, including as a prolific painter. One of the final images of the film is a painting (by Moouras' friend Robert Dvorak) from the back of the boy and his dog on the bench below Mickey’s Tree, looking out at the river. Like the film itself, it invokes a feeling we all know – physical loss, followed by deep, enduring and even eternal connection with a loved one. It’s the ultimate portrayal of a personal story made universal so that everyone (pet lovers especially!) can relate.