The fascinating—and maddening—documentary Far from the Tree, directed by Rachel Dretzin,isbased on Andrew Solomon’s best-seller, which was subtitled, “Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” The author, who appears in the film (and is one of the producers), is a gay man who wrote his book to understand how families managed when the children were considerably different from the parents. He seeks to investigate the very nature of identity and the documentary uses four case studies to make its points. The parts, however, are greater than the whole.
The film opens with Solomon describing his own efforts to understand his parents, who were disappointed when he came out as gay. The pain he felt took years to overcome, and his experiences—seeking out sexual surrogates, for example—are recounted in the film. These scenes may provide context for the other stories and human struggles, but as well-intentioned as they are, they come off as self-serving.
Far from the Tree pulls at the heartstrings when it introduces Jason, a 40-year-old man with Down Syndrome. His mother refused to let her son’s disability hold him back. As a young man, he was literally a poster child whose success inspired others. However, he is now very set in his ways, working at a job in a mailroom, living with two roommates (both of whom also have Down Syndrome), and obsessed with wearing only blue clothes as well as with Elsa from Frozen.His patient mother now faces the disappointment that this is who her son has become. The experience of the mother wanting more for her child—is touching, and yet frustrating because Jason seems quite content in his life. He claims he is happy, “until something better comes along.” It is interesting to consider the gulf between a parent’s wishes and their children’s reality (regardless of the differences between adult and offspring), but the film does not investigate that deeply; instead, it just raises the wistful point and moves on to the next subject.
The second case study features Jack, who is first seen as a young boy in home videos. There is some painful footage of Jack acting out and hitting his mother. His parents are desperate to understand their son, who, it is revealed, cannot talk. Eventually, they learn he is autistic, and after numerous (and expensive) efforts, there is a breakthrough with a therapist who helps Jack communicate. Jack is revealed to be smart and he becomes more outgoing. The scenes that follow show how Jack and his parents adjust to a life that is more manageable and hopeful. It is a heartfelt segment, but it traverses territory not dissimilar from Jason’s story in how parents cope with children who have disabilities.
Far from the Tree shift gears in its second half when it showcases Loini, a dwarf, who describes her life experiences and attitudes. She comes into her own when she attends a Little Persons of America (LPA) conference. She meets other dwarfs for the first time, and it is liberating; she even participates in an LPA fashion show. Although Loini’s mother is seen in the film, there is little discussion about their relationship or her thoughts about her daughter’s life and struggles.
However, once at the LPA conference, Dretzin abandons Loini’s story and follows Leah and Joe, two dwarfs who are married and trying to have a baby. Leah hopes their child will be a dwarf like them. It is curious that Loini’s story is even included given how little it adds to the film’s overarching points, and how invested the filmmaker is with Leah and Joe’s efforts to become parents. There are scenes of doctor’s visits, ultrasounds, and more. But the gulf between parent and child is only suggested here. The emphasis on identity gets more attention, with a discussion of a cure for achondroplasia—which upsets the LPA board—and Joe’s comments about how accepting he is of his life, despite microaggressions from others.
The last episode is even more far afield as it relates the story of Trevor, a teenager who murdered an 8-year-old boy. Imprisoned for life, he is seen only in photos and archival home videos. His voice is heard briefly during family phone calls. The parents are obviously heartbroken, but his mother admits, “You can’t stop loving a child.” The impact her son’s actions have caused on the family are palpable. But while no parent wants their child to grow up to be a killer, the guilt Trevor’s mother and father feel is light years away from the disappointment Jason’s mother experiences. It is disingenuous to juxtapose them.
And herein lies the problem with Far from the Tree:while each story tackles a slightly different facet of the parent/child divide, and there are insights, they are either too similar or too different to be truly profound. While the film shows how Solomon confronted his issues and started a happy, extended family of his own, Far from the Tree never explains if or how the other situations presented in the film can (or should) be resolved. The case studies illuminate some of the problems of familial identity, but less from the child’s point of view—which was Solomon’s own starting point—focusing mostly on the parents. And the fact that none of the stories address families facing real economic hardship does not go unnoticed.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to be inspired by the humanity on display in the film. The dignity of these individuals, all of whom want the right to just be who they are, comes across clearly. That is the strength of this very flawed, but highly compelling film.
Far from the Tree opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.