In many ancient religious traditions, plants were regarded as a sentient species, with prehistoric civilizations emphasizing humanity’s connection to them and other objects in the natural world. Thousands of years later, anthropologists would dismiss this belief as a primitive observation without any scientific basis.

But ideas surrounding the mystical nature of plants have persisted, and are evident in many modern religions and spiritual teachings. And now, the notion of plant intelligence has finally found footing in the research community. Studies show that plants use electrical signalling and neurotransmitter-like chemicals (rather than actual neurons) to exhibit behavior that looks remarkably like learning and decision-making. They can respond to signals from the environment defensively—by retracting leaves or producing protective chemicals—or constructively, like when growing in an arc toward sunlight. Trees are also capable of communicating with other species and across distances by passing messages through their roots and underground webs of fungus.

With our understanding of plant power still in flux, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is helping fund Mabel, the first feature film by NYU Tisch Graduate Film student Nicholas Ma. The film, which aims to dispel myths and misconceptions about plant science, explores an awkward child’s close friendship with her potted plant and the charismatic teacher who introduces her to the wonderland of botany.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Award of $100,000 is given each year to a student or recent alumnus from Tisch’s Kanbar Institute of Film and Television to produce a feature-length narrative that challenges stereotypes about science. Previous films have depicted a 16-year-old child prodigy who built a nuclear reactor in his mother’s backyard for a Boy Scout merit badge, the “radium girls” who contracted a mysterious illness from dangerous labor conditions, and a troubled teen who finds his place in the world tracking wolves in the wild lands of Wyoming.

Ma recently produced the critically-acclaimed Fred Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which helped earn him a place on the “40 Under 40” list put out by the DOC NYC film festival. He will be presenting his short film, Suite No. 1, Prelude—about Yo-Yo Ma re-recording the Prelude to Bach’s first cello suite—as part of DOC NYC’s 2019 lineup.

NYU News spoke to Ma about his love of plants, how film can make science more accessible, and how Mister Rogers continues to influence his creative process.

Is Mabel ultimately a buddy film? If so, how do you do that with a plant?

It's not a whimsical relationship, and it's not like the relationship between an owner and a pet. It’s based on that preternatural ability that a young person has to look at another living thing and realize they share so much in common. I think that's a quality we lose as we get older, but it's also a quality that is more central to our world today than ever before—to recognize that we are not separated in some kind of binary way from the natural world.

Nicholas Ma headshot

Nicholas Ma

And that is the idea that's at the core of Mabel: What does it mean to engage with and learn from the world around you? In many ways, it's a simple story about a girl making her first friend (or her second friend, after the plant). But in other ways, it's a meditation on these bigger issues.

What drew you to elevate plant “personalities” in this way?  

There's been so much research in the past 10 years into what’s actually going on inside plants and the research is just stunning. It takes your breath away. We've realized that plants make decisions. And that's a weird concept. We know they don't have brains. We know they don't have central nervous systems. Yet, somehow, they make decisions. Not only do they make decisions that are in their best interest, they also make decisions with what seems to be altruism. They've discovered that fir trees residing in forests in the Pacific Northwest feed the birch trees through an underground network of mushroom sugars in one season, and then the birch trees feed those sugars back to the fir trees. And if you put in radioactive carbon isotopes, you can watch an entire forest start to glow with what appears to be generosity between species.

Over the past hundred million years, there emerged 380,000 species of flowering plants. And somehow they managed to co-exist. There is something so powerful in that lived experience that we sometimes can't see—because we live such a shorter period of time—about what it means to coexist with other living things. The lesson is that it's essential to our communities, it’s essential to our country and it's essential to our world to see coexistence, however uncomfortable, as essential—rather than something to be attained.

The film’s synopsis references ‘the controversial world of plant intelligence.’ Why is this a controversy?  

We like to privilege our world and ourselves as the smartest and most thoughtful species. At the same time, if humans were to disappear, the plants would be just fine, but if the plants were to disappear, we would vanish from the face of the earth. There's a lesson there. It’s controversial because people apply words like intelligence or generosity or decision-making to describe plants and that makes us uncomfortable, as though we’re trying to anthropomorphize plants. But the point isn't to say that plants work the same way that people do, but rather to say that there is a complexity and beauty and mystery that exists within the plant world that we can't necessarily wrap our minds around.

How do these themes manifest in the script?  

Well, it’s about a girl who is best friends with a plant and that makes her parents nervous. Of course you worry about your kid if their best friend is a plant. They do all sorts of things to help her out. They give her golf lessons. They encourage her to leave the plant at home. They set her up on a playdate with her younger neighbor. When they finally hear their daughter Callie has made a friend, they're thrilled. What they don't know is that this friend isn’t a kid but a magnetic postdoc substitute science teacher named Ms. G from the local university. And Ms. G validates all the things that Callie feels about her potted plant, teaching her the science behind this crazy world of “plant intelligence,” about how plants have agency that we don't realize, and that without plants, we wouldn’t be here. She gives Callie confidence at a middle school where she struggles, as the plant nerd, and the only half-Asian girl in this overwhelmingly white community.

But she also fuels an obsession with plants that’s less great and stretches her relationship with her parents and her school to a breaking point. Callie finally finishes the experiment that she feels sure will prove her brilliance. She rushes to school to tell Ms. G, only to discover that her teacher has abruptly left town. Her drastic reaction to Ms. G’s departure is what threatens to destroy everything else in her life: her dad’s job, her budding friendship with this neighbor, her parents’ trust, even her little garden. But even as her life comes crashing down around her, Callie’s research into plants leads her to a real revelation: not that plants are superior to people or that people are superior to plants, but rather that we have an obligation to find a way of coexisting with each other. And that perhaps there is already someone in her life who gets that.

How did you create a realistic portrayal of a school age child in the midst of such unconventional friendships?  

You have to draw on all of your own experiences. For me, that includes working as a summer camp counselor for many years and being the eldest of all my cousins. I also had a co-writer, a woman named Joy Goodwin, who is immensely talented and has two children of her own. Between the two of us, we mined our personal history and lives for those moments that feel authentic.

Being a child is peculiar. It exists in its own space and it's easy to to try foist adult ideas onto children. I was also inspired by Mister Rogers, who believed in letting the child's world exist as reality, as opposed to forcing too much adulthood on children. My sympathy for the character was particularly influenced by the Mister Rogers documentary, to say: who is this person? And to allow this character, Callie, to be the person she was going to be.

What other stereotypes about science do you hope this film addresses?  

Right now, we think of scientists and science being the province of a priestly cast, where there are some people who are born to be scientists and some people who are not. And if you're not born to be a scientist, you can't touch, or engage, or understand science.

I think that that's deeply misguided. Science is a way of looking and understanding the world around us, and is something we all have access to. The greatest scientists share the same awe that every human has when they look at the world and wonder how could it possibly be the way that it is. Scientists are, in some ways, our guides and our scouts to these wonders. But those wonders belong to all of us.