Author and psychologist Andrew Solomon’s bestselling 2012 book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” chronicled some 300 case histories of families in which a child and the child’s parents were vastly unalike. Solomon himself, as he says in Rachel Dretzin’s documentary “Far From the Tree,” which draws on his book, grew up feeling like a “weirdo” because he realized early on that he was gay. His conservative, upper-class New York family was unaccepting of this, as indeed, for a time, was he. The documentary is an attempt, in the words of those behind the film, to “investigate the very nature of family itself.”
That this attempt is overreaching and diffuse does not detract from the film’s sporadic power. Dretzin focuses on six families, in addition to Solomon’s story, and each one is compelling in ways that initially may seem disparate but gradually cohere into a thesis. Dretzin and Solomon are promoting that old inspirational chestnut about triumphing over adversity.
Besides Solomon, who ultimately reconciled with his parents, we also encounter Jack, who was born severely autistic, and Loini, who felt isolated by her dwarfism until she attended a Little People of America convention and connected with her “tribe.” Married couple Leah Smith and Joseph Stramondo, also of that tribe, seem joyful together, especially when they end up bringing a baby into the world. (Stramondo, who zooms around in a wheelchair, is an assistant philosophy professor at San Diego State University. I bet his classes are fun.)
Jason was born with Down syndrome and lives with two other similarly abled men; he proudly refers to the trio as “The Three Musketeers.” He’s worked for 20 years in a local post office and remains obsessed with the movie “Frozen.” His mother worked for “Sesame Street,” on which he appeared as a child.
Most problematic in the movie is Trevor, who at 16, for no apparent reason, stabbed to death an 8-year-old boy. Now serving a life sentence in Angola State Prison, he is the only offspring featured in the film whom we don’t see, except in home movie clips in which he comes across as a bright, beaming child. But we hear at length from his father, an ex-naval officer, and his mother, a math teacher, as well as from his two siblings, who say that because of Trevor they have chosen never to have children of their own. And yet, even here, the family’s attitude toward Trevor is extremely complicated. His mother asks, “How can you stop loving your child?”
It is the core question posed by the film. Trevor’s crime is heinous and inexplicable, but how society punishes it is a very different process from how his family comes to terms with it. They fully condemn his act; they question, as do practically all the parents in this movie, whether they are somehow responsible for their child’s circumstance. And yet there is a scene in which Trevor, from prison, talks to his father on the phone and we might as well be overhearing a typical breezy parent-son chat. The lure of normalcy, even here, is overpowering.
In their own very different ways, the parents in this movie have achieved a measure of acceptance and even uplift from their predicament, in many cases after years of feeling guilty. That the parents, and many of their children, were no doubt chosen for displaying this uplift skews the sample, since one can easily imagine a separate group from which a very different and darker scenario could be drawn. But Solomon is on a good-news crusade here. He speaks of how he once subscribed to Tolstoy’s famous opening dictum in “Anna Karenina” that “all happy families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But, he goes on, “Actually, I think a lot of unhappiness is quite similar, and that what’s remarkable is all of the different ways people find to be happy.”
For me, the greatest example of this uplift is Jack’s story. Unable to communicate verbally in any real way because of his autism, he is finally connected to a computerized voice synthesizer keyboard that allows him to “speak” for the first time. For his parents, who tried everything to get through to their son, this new development is a life-changing affirmation that within Jack lies a vast and companionable world. He proudly types out for them, “I’m trying. And I’m really smart.” Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)