At first, it may be difficult to figure out what the common threads are in the various family stories being laid out in the new documentary Far From the Tree, based on writer Andrew Solomon’s book of the same name (and subtitled Parents, Children and the Search for Identity). But as Emmy-winning director Rachel Dretzin’s film digs deeper into the lives of these very different families and their dynamics, we begin to realize the clue is right there in the title, taken from the popular expression about parents and children: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
But what if the apple falls miles from the tree, and the child’s experience is vastly—sometimes heartbreakingly or triumphantly—different from his/her parents and fellow siblings? This is the phenomenon that Solomon (who begins this discovery process with his own life) and Dretzin explore, and it’s both an emotionally powerful work and an uplifting revelation.
Solomon examines how his life as a gay man impacted his relationship with his parents, but by the time we get to his wedding (which makes the recent royal wedding look like a backyard barbecue), his elderly father makes a speech that will bring any audience to tears. The movie also profiles families working their way through members with autism, Down syndrome, dwarfism, and, perhaps the most difficult story to wrap your brain around, a child in prison for life since the age of 16 for the seemingly random, unprovoked murder of another child. Those parents have two other kids, and they never stop wondering what went wrong with the eldest that turned this perfectly normal, straight-laced kid into a cold-blooded killer.
It’s strange seeing various combinations of family members talk to the son on the phone from prison, as if he’s just living in the next town over, and then the reality of the situation hits them. Not surprisingly, they often have to forget that son even exists as part of their day-to-day lives, and they certainly don’t bring him up in conversations with neighbors in the new town they move to.
Using some really wonderful and uplifting new music from Yo La Tengo and Nico Muhly, Far From the Tree provides us with stories that almost all begin the same way: Parents who realize that their child is somehow different assume that they can’t cope with catering to their needs. And of course, most of them have such overpowering love for their offspring that they find the strength and fortitude to make it happen, as impossible as it may seem at times.
The film is immeasurably inspiring because it makes us wonder what circumstances might arise in our lives that will push such resolve out of us. I wish the film has shown some clearer examples of the more common prejudices that these children encounter from their fellow humans, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that such challenges aren’t too difficult for us to figure out on our own.
Far From the Tree is hopeful, honest, raw in its intimacy, and it allows its subjects to go through unremarkable and remarkable days, so we get a better sense of how accomplished and dignified these folks are. Tears will be shed, but they are tempered with moments that will make us smile, laugh, and generally feel great about inner strength and beauty. No one in this movie wants anyone feeling sorry for them, and that isn’t the feeling that the film is designed to elicit. The movie is a creature of pure love and admiration and well worth your time.
The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Andrew Solomon, the author of the book upon which the documentary is based, will be on hand for Q&As at the Landmark on Friday, Aug. 17, after the 7:15pm show; and Saturday, Aug. 18, after the 1:45pm and 4:30pm screenings.
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