Far From the Tree
Documentary addresses the difficulty of “different” families
Far From the Tree (2018)
Directed by Rachel Dretzin
How do families deal with children who are very different from them? That’s the probing premise behind Rachel Dretzin’s honest and empathetic documentary Far From the Tree.
Based on Andrew Solomon’s New York Times best-selling book of the same name, the film begins by consulting with Solomon himself. The son of high society parents, Solomon knew from a very early age that he was “different.” His parents could handle his love of fashion, his taste for opera, his obsession with Emily Dickenson. But they drew the line when he declared he was a homosexual. Loving of their first-born offspring, but shaken by the revelation, they never quite got around to fully accepting him for who he was. Determined to understand his parents’ conflicted feelings, Solomon spent 10 years researching and writing his nonfiction book.
Like Solomon’s book, Dretzin’s documentary casts its focus across a wide range of “different” children. We meet those with Down syndrome, those with dwarfism, autism. We meet a man in jail for a heinous crime. Some of the differences are physical, some are psychological, others are moral. But the common thread is that clear wall of division between parent and child, and the guilt that accompanies it. As Solomon explains it, the research he put into his deeply personal book was akin to “investigating the very nature of family itself.”
We meet, by way of example, Emily and Charles Kingsley, parents to Jason, who was born with Down Syndrome. Put off by the “advice” of doctors and obstetricians in the ’70s, who suggested institutionalizing Jason before “imprinting” occurred, Emily and Charles became determined to help their son break the mold. “You don’t write off a person because of the label he carries,” says Jason’s stalwart mother. Unwilling to let Jason’s “disability” dictate his life story, his progressive parents work hard to educate him. Under their patient tutelage, he’s soon reading, writing and doing math at grade level, disproving many preconceptions about people with Down syndrome. Jason’s skills even turn him into a celebrity of sorts, appearing on talk shows and a segment of “Sesame Street” as a child.
Normally, that would be the whole of the story—an inspirational tale of parent and child overcoming adversity. But Far From the Tree follows the story further. It’s now decades later, and Jason is a 41-year-old adult living on his own. Even to his still-supportive mother, Jason has become an outlier. His early potential seems to have sagged under the weight of parental expectations. His understanding of the separation between fantasy and reality has eroded. In the past several years, he has become positively obsessed with the Disney film Frozen. Much to the consternation of his roommates, he watches it constantly. He refuses to wear anything but blue and wants to visit Norway, convinced that he will meet and marry the princess of his dreams there. “It has kind of taken over his life, and it is difficult to talk any kind of common sense to him about it,” his mother confesses. “What are ya gonna do?” she concludes, her assessment devolving into exasperated shrugs. Even among tolerant, understanding, helpful parents, there are difficulties.
Between family profiles, Dretzin’s camera returns to Solomon, watching him as he recounts his many youthful attempts to change his sexuality. The desire to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with is a theme in Far From the Tree. But this isn’t simply the story of children learning to grow comfortable with themselves. It’s the story of parents struggling to adjust their expectations and hopes under what are often monumentally difficult circumstances.
Another key moment in the film is the story of Jack Ullnut. Born with severe autism, Jack soon tests the limits of his parents’ loving willpower. Frustrated with an inability to talk or otherwise express himself, he frequently scratches his face bloody or attacks his parents. Tearfully, his mother Amy confesses the years she spent wondering what she did to cause this. Did she not take the proper vitamins during pregnancy? Was her child exposed to something as a baby? The heartbreaking—yet resolutely hopeful— stories presented here prove that just because a story is inspirational to others doesn’t mean it’s any easier to live through.
In the end Far From the Tree doesn’t advance any particularly groundbreaking theory. Few people these days expect families to be perfect or children to be well-conformed carbon copies of their parents. But for its ability to capture the drama of these unique children and their often conflicted parents, Far From the Tree is a compelling, compassionate and ultimately upbeat glimpse into the complicated, peril-fraught crapshoot that is parenthood.