'Far From the Tree': Film Review

Moving but scattershot.
7/20/2018

Rachel Dretzin's documentary, inspired by Andrew Solomon's best-selling book, profiles several families in which parents and their childen have substantial differences.

Based on Andrew Solomon's best-selling 2012 behemoth of a book (1,000 pages), Rachel Dretzin's documentary explores the theme of parents dealing with children who live up to the film's title. It's a worthy theme, to be sure, and this portrait of several families, only one of whom was also featured in the book, includes many undeniably moving moments. Unfortunately, Far From the Tree ultimately doesn't live up to the sum of its parts, feeling too scattershot and diffuse to produce the desired impact.

The author serves as a sort of host for the documentary, beginning by relating his own story about growing up gay with disapproving parents. Solomon describes how he desperately tried to be heterosexual, going to such lengths as copiously consuming pornography and patronizing sexual "surrogates" who introduced him to straight sex. His efforts to change himself failed, and his mother died without ever fully accepting him for who he was.

We're then introduced to the film's subjects, beginning with Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome whose mother lovingly cares for him. It's not always easy, as demonstrated by a scene in which Jason rudely rebuffs a birthday present, to her unspoken but obvious dismay. He's also obsessed with the movie Frozen and the character of Elsa, with whom he's in love. He desperately wants to travel to Norway even though he knows she doesn't really exist.

Next comes Jack, an autistic teenager whose mother tearfully blames herself for his condition, wondering if she wasn't living healthily enough while she was pregnant. Although highly aggressive as a child, Jack has blossomed since gaining the ability to speak through a computer, revealing an intelligence and sense of humor that had heretofore been hidden.

Twenty-three-year-old Loini laments her dwarfism, pointing out about her siblings, "They don't really understand as much as they think they do." She longs to drive, but her mother can't afford the specially equipped car that would enable her to do so. Deeply lonely, she has never dated and desperately wants a boyfriend. But her life brightens when she attends a Little People of America convention, where she finds her first true friend. This leads to a segment involving Joe and Leah, a dwarf couple who have found happiness together and are attempting to have a child.

Finally there's Trevor, an 18-year-old serving a life sentence in prison for killing an 8-year-old boy by slitting his throat. There was no apparent motive for the slaying, with one psychiatrist informing his parents, "Your son is broken." They agonize over what could possibly have driven Trevor to such an act, and his siblings declare that, as a result, they have no intention of ever having children themselves.

That segment fits uneasily with the others, illustrating the central problem with the documentary. The filmmaker, as though easily distracted, never imposes a firm structure on the material. The story of Joe and Leah, for instance, is quite touching but seems included simply because Dretzin found them interesting. Ditto for Solomon's struggles with his sexuality, which illustrate his motive for writing the book, but whose inclusion feels self-indulgent here.

Far From the Tree nonetheless has many powerfully moving moments, especially in its final section, in which several of the featured stories have very happy endings. It's a deeply humanistic film, for all its flaws, and anyone who can get through it without shedding a few tears is made of stern stuff indeed.

Production company: Ark Media
Distributor: IFC Films
Director: Rachel Dretzin
Producers: Rachel Dretzin, Andrew Solomon
Directors of photography: Wolfgang Held, Sam Russell
Editor: Ben Gold
Composers: Nico Muhly, Yo La Tengo

83 minutes