I saw The Tree of Life in theaters immediately after the film was released. After it was over the usher cleaning the floor asked my friend and I what we thought of it, since she had heard so many people complaining. I smiled politely and said I liked the film, and left it at that. This was the same politeness that made me lie in 11th grade English, when we read Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Everyone in my class absolutely hated it, and thought it was the worst book they had ever read. Still growing and unsure about myself, I said I hated it too and could barely get through it. What I didn’t say was how I thought it was beautiful, and strange, and how her chapter on the lights from passing cars moving over her walls scared me because it felt like someone trapped a lost memory of mine and presented it to me again, at 15, in a book.

What I didn’t tell the usher was that The Tree of Life felt the same, like someone had taken the memories and feelings of my childhood and sharpened them, put them in high definition and blasted them on a twenty-two foot screen. I’ve watched it five times now, each time as a different person, affecting a different part of me. I’ve watched it as someone who could never understand the depths of grief. I watched it as someone fresh from fully understanding that. I watched it as someone fundamentally changed in the passing of a year. The Tree of Life is a chameleon of a movie, containing multitudes of experiences. It is an ambitious project, whose scope encompasses every stage of life, every stage of being. It is beguiling and hard to understand if you take it as what you expect a movie to be, with a narrative that has a climax and a resolution. The movie is fragmented, not in a way that is hard to follow, but in a way that is very unexpected. It demands your personal introspection. It does not hand anything over.

The movie opens with a quote from the book of Job: God reprimands Job for asking an explanation of his torments; He shows Job his smallness in comparison to the universe, to the fantastical nature of existence. The human ego demanding answers is laughable in the face of billion-year-old stars, and yet still wholly relatable. The stars are infinite but so is pain. The movie starts on the anniversary of the death of Jack’s brother, and we feel the intense pain of his loss. We do not know him yet, or the people that love him, but the vision of grief is profound and deeply familiar. As soon as we are introduced to the family that makes up most of the movie, we are launched into an awe-inspiring montage of the creation of the world. We feel the same sentiment as Job. It is humbling to see the vastness of our world, the incredible power and beauty, the smallness of our existence. We are humbled, and as we are humbled we go back to Jack and his family, and watch him grow up. The two parts seem unrelated, but if you ignore the scale of the creation of the universe compared to the creation of a human being, they are remarkably similar. The director, Terrence Malick, continually shows us how great and small are connected; how a river where a dinosaur once spared the life of another is the same as where a confused and scared boy tried to wash away the evidence of his growing sexuality; how time is vast but life is the same everywhere.

The film is a constant push and pull between Grace and Nature, represented in the archetypes of the Mother and the Father—the yin and yang between cruelty and love, grief and joy, of the universal and the specific. The people of the film are not character studies. They have depth and traits but this is not an exploration of specific people. They exist to show us universal human truths, to grapple with big questions. What are we doing here? Why do we exist? Why did this happen?

The earnest whispered narration leads us into the prayers of the characters, and leads us into prayer with ourselves. The film is religious but not of any specific denomination. The shots of the church in the film and the technically correct prayers said out loud seem a sad, hollow imitation of the mystifying beauty of the earth’s unfolding creation. God does not exist as a figurehead, but as the leaves in the trees, the snails in the mud, the love we find and the pain we must live with. Every shot of the movie is painfully gorgeous. All of Terrence Malick’s films are intricately beautiful, but the beauty does not just serve itself. It demands us to sit and know the fluttering of a curtain, or the movement of a hand. It demands us to meditate on the beauty that surrounds us every day, to find our own grace in it.

The film feels like memories, scattered and hazy and ultraspecific. The memory of the way Bactine bubbled up in a cut you got while outside, how it smelled as sharp as it felt. The way the sun fell through the leaves as you tore through the woods, screaming for joy. The way your father would hold your neck, trying to be loving but having no way of giving up control. The complete terror you felt when you first told him No. It circles around things that have no name but we all know. Not all of us have shot our brother with a BB gun, but we all know the feeling of doing something cruel and wrong for the first time, of realizing what potential for violence we have, of destroying what we love.

Some of the scenes are unexplainable. Many people hate this film because of that. There is no arrow pointing you towards meaning, towards a resolution, towards anything besides your own interior world. To ask for an explanation is to deny the nature of existence. There are too many things in our world that cannot be explained. How can the mother explain the death of her son? How can I explain following a hearse as it passes my home, the home I grew up in, while it carries my father? How the sun kissed the ground like it was just a day? How do I explain the complicated feelings of never getting to forgive a person who caused so much fear and hate in you, and only realizing now that that was all they knew?

The Father in the movie is following what he knows, money and manners and structure, of what is expected and can be counted. He loves his sons, but is following Nature. He needs to control, he needs things to be quantifiable. My sons love me if they say please and thank you. My sons love me if they do what I command. Rage is always a secondary emotion. He rages because of the emptiness inside of him, from fear of the unknown, fear of losing control. Death is so strange because it robs you not just of a person, but of the ways you were supposed to grow with the person, of all the banal things you expected of them. A son gets to grow up and learn how to forgive a father for his nature. A father gets to learn from his son to accept the world and its love; he learns the way of grace.

Life is inherently beyond our comprehension. You go to sleep one day and wake up in a world that makes no sense, where your mother is young and your brother is younger, where there are doors that lead to nowhere in the desert and doors that lead to what you used to know. We are all Jobs, staring up at the sky, fervently asking Why?, and hearing no answer but the rustling of leaves.

Colleen Tighe’s essay won first prize in 2013 in the First Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. A senior, she is an Illustration major at SVA. Originally from New Jersey, she fled across the river and settled in New York City. When not doing freelance illustration, writing, or crafting, she’s trying to find the perfect bagel.