Decency and a mind of its own sets "The Education of Little Tree" apart from standard sagas about the hardship of growing up in a harsh world. This gentle movie, sensitively acted and only occasionally heavy-handed in execution, explores the struggle of a part Cherokee orphan, trying to hold on to the best of his ancestry in the face of injustice, prejudice and, at times, outright cruelty. Joseph Ashton's simple quiet charm as young Little Tree allows for easy empathy with his joy in his free life with his grandparents and his heartache when the authorities remove him to a state institution. Both James Cromwell as his Tennessee mountain man grandpa and Tantoo Cardinal as his Cherokee grandma create finely etched portraits filled with dignity and devoid of false sentiment, and Graham Greene has a quirky loneness as a native philosopher. Some of the supporting characters, who represent the blatant wrongs of the world, are less finely drawn and inclined to ham it up, but overall Friedenberg's direction, like his script (adapted from Forrest Carter's novel), has understated power. The Canadian locations stand in effectively for the Tennessee backwoods country and the l930s era is captured without showy artifice. The beauty of this world is savored, but its tough reality is not ignored. The balance of common sense and respect for tradition which underscores the story is reflected in the film's execution. It takes pride in really being a "family" film, not just paying the genre lip service, and its effort pays off. Starring James Cromwell, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene and Joseph Ashton. Directed and written by Richard Friedenberg. Produced by Jake Eberts. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated PG for language and thematic elements including old-fashioned discipline. Running time 117 min.