The Sea of Trees

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
The Sea of Trees Movie Poster Image
Drama about life-changing journey; suicide, mature themes.
  • PG-13
  • 2016
  • 110 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Appreciate what you have while you have it.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A wife and husband treat each other badly, forgetting how much they love each other. A man does all he can to help a stranger.


A wife and husband toss verbal barbs at each other, driving a wedge between them. At the entrance of a dense and forbidding Japanese forest famous for drawing the suicidal, a sign in English warns: "Hold on a second. Please think again so you can make your life a happy one." Several bodies are found there, one hanging from a tree. A man with bleeding wounds on his wrists and blood on his face is found wandering in a forest. A man falls down a ravine and is impaled on a twig. In a fall, a man injures his leg badly. It's reported that in 2003, 105 bodies were found in the forest, dead from hanging or overdoses.


A man had an affair years ago, but it remains an issue in his marriage.


"F--k" and "s--t."  

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A man prepares to take a drug overdose in his effort to commit suicide. A woman is described as a high-functioning alcoholic.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Sea of Trees follows a grieving man recovering from loss and a disintegrating marriage on a journey that is at times healing, mysterious, and maybe even spiritual. The desire to escape guilt, shame, and pain by suicide is a theme; two men travel to a spot favored by those wishing to end their lives. Decaying bodies are occasionally discovered, one hanging, but the movie focuses on reasons to live and has a generally uplifting message of love and hope, unlike many movies about suicide. Language includes "f--k" and "s--t." A man had an affair years ago, but it remains an issue in his marriage. A man prepares to take a drug overdose in his effort to commit suicide. A woman is described as a high-functioning alcoholic.

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What's the story?

THE SEA OF TREES jumps around in time to tell the story of Arthur (Matthew McConaughey), a struggling adjunct science professor, who is married to Joan, a high-functioning alcoholic real estate agent (Naomi Watts). They argue about nothing and avoid any real discussions about what's bothering them. Arthur recognizes that a stupid affair he had years before was a mistake, but he seems unable to explain to Joan that he loves only her. She lives in constant loud resentment, pretending her grievance is that Arthur doesn't make enough money in his pursuit of intellectual achievement. Unshaven and broken down, Arthur arrives at an infamous Japanese forest where suicidal people go to hang themselves or take deliberate drug overdoses. Arthur has pills, a bottle of water, and his wife's favorite children's book along. But as he starts to take the pills, he encounters Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a man in suit and tie weakened by blood loss from ineptly slashed wrists. Shamed by the fact that he can't support his wife and family, he had opted for an honor suicide, but now, lost in the forest, wants only to return to his family. Hearing his moaning, Arthur interrupts his own suicide to help get Takumi out of the forest. The forest, however, fights back. Arthur falls down ravines and gets impaled on a tree limb. He falls again and injures his leg. Flash flooding nearly drowns the hapless pair. Wet and freezing, they find a corpse in a tent and take his clothes and use his lighter to make a fire. A walkie talkie still works but doesn't connect to a signal. Takumi offers spiritual salve -- that Arthur's wife will always be with him -- while Arthur whines that he didn't even know his wife's favorite color or season. When Takumi becomes too weak to go on, Arthur covers him with the raincoat his wife gave him and promises to come back for him. After Arthur is rescued, authorities assure him that no other person is on record as having entered the forest. 

Is it any good?

This is a strange, beautifully-made fantasy that's engaging while you watch, but holes in the plot nag at the film's end. McConaughey and Watts make a failing marriage believable, but what neither they nor the script provide is any indication that they once loved each other before tragedy struck. For the ending of The Sea of Treesto make sense, concrete evidence of their love would have been necessary and, aside from Arthur's regret, there really isn't any.

To director Gus Van Sant's credit, this doesn't detract from the absorbing drama he creates as Arthur comes to Japan's suicide forest, then suddenly yearns to live despite his life's challenges. Unlike teen-targeted stories about suicide, this one celebrates the human will to survive and to overcome pain in favor of getting on with life, as difficult as that task might be.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how difficult it can be to get through some of life's challenges and why sometimes people who feel hopeless might contemplate suicide. How does the main character come to see a better way of coping with his feelings?

  • Why do you think the two main characters in The Sea of Trees change their minds about ending their lives?

  • What should you do if you or someone you know is considering suicide?

Movie details

  • In theaters: August 26, 2016
  • On DVD or streaming: November 1, 2016
  • Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe
  • Director: Gus Van Sant
  • Studio: Lionsgate
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run time: 110 minutes
  • MPAA rating: PG-13
  • MPAA explanation: for mature thematic material, some disturbing images and brief strong language
  • Last updated: March 13, 2020

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