Film Review: Far from the Tree

Powerful, feel-good doc about several parents and especially their offspring who, outside the mental, physical or cultural grid of so-called “normalcy,” emerge the deserving beneficiaries of familial love, patience and acceptance.
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We’re in a golden era of strong documentaries based on well-known personalities or institutions (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fred Rogers, Nora Ephron, Elaine Stritch, The New York Times). So doc filmmakers today have an additional challenge when their themes are abstract or subjects less known.

But director Rachel Dretzin (Football High, Growing Up Online), with Sundance Selects’ Far from the Tree, has a strong hand thanks to her source material, the best-selling nonfiction book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity and its acclaimed author—much-published journalist and lecturer (including TED talks) Andrew Solomon. He also contributes invaluably to the doc as a producer and as an occasional onscreen and voiceover presence with his own personal story: Like the movie’s subjects, he fell “far from the tree” of parental desires.

The stories here (both book and doc were years in the making) benefit from effective cross-cutting amongst the families profiled, enriched by home movies and generous access. Viewers meet both parents and their children via interviews today and old footage. The children are already adults, but most are followed from a young age; all are far different from what their parents expected. Both familiar and extreme, the differences include Down syndrome, dwarfism, autism, severely aberrant criminality and the inevitable sexual orientation.

Jason has Down syndrome, but with his mother’s constant love and support, he grows up to be a happy, well-adjusted man who can quote Shakespeare and keep the same office job for close to 20 years. He has lived semi-independently with two other men with similar disorders. (Describing them like family, he calls his happy trio “the three musketeers.”) Now in his 40s, Jason has appeared on TV and hasn’t shaken his obsession with the film Frozen.

As a kid, Jack at first appears normal until he shows that he cannot communicate, throws tantrums and grows silent except for the noises he can make. Diagnosed as severely autistic, he benefits from persistent care from his parents, who strive to find a way to socialize him. The solution arises when Jack learns to type his feelings and connect to others in his most unusual but effective way.

One of the doc’s most inspiring subjects is the dwarf Loini Vivao, a 25-year-old lwho, sheltered, has been living with a very loving and attentive mother of normal height. Loini is bright, well-adjusted and possesses a great sense of humor. But she has hardly socialized and never even made a real friend. All changes when, along with her mom, she makes a first-time trip to the Little People of America convention and encounters many others like herself. There, she even forges a true friendship with another dwarf with whom she’ll stay in touch. Loini blossoms and her personality is so winning she deserves a fan club, which this doc might even bring.

At the same convention, Dretzin found Leah Smith and Joseph Stramondo, a dwarf couple whose parents were average size. Joseph, the coolest of characters, also has a knockout personality and self-assured presence, with a job as a San Diego State University assistant professor of philosophy. This couple delivers the doc’s biggest surprise; a thrilling one that should bring tears.

The most enigmatic sequence involves the Reese family, as iconically all-American as apple pie or baseball, except that their oldest son Trevor is in Angola State Prison for life. At 16, he inexplicably stabbed an eight-year-old to death. Over several years, the parents, an ex-naval officer and a math teacher mother, go through the familiar cycle of reactions, finally confronting the real horror when told that “your son is just broken.” The parents end up accepting and loving Trevor. The doc captures the father and his imprisoned son speaking on the phone and impressing as just another parent chatting with a son away at college. What’s chilling is that Trevor had normalcy all around him; his early home movies show a regular kid. His two younger siblings seem so wholesome but say they won’t have children.

Author Solomon’s own story is very much a part of this doc and appropriately so. A perceived “weirdo,” he fell way beyond the expectations of his wealthy, conservative upper-class parents who wanted their eldest son to be into sports and girls. Solomon says plainly: “My parents didn’t want a gay son.” Knowing he was homosexual but feeling profound shame and parental rejection, he tried to “convert.” His struggle and sexual orientation notwithstanding, he went on to Yale and Oxford and his remarkable career. Best, he reconciled with a family that finally accepted him and, now married, created his own family.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that throughout these stories it’s love again that saves the day. What does surprise is how incredibly moving these real-life characters are and how much strength and good can come from losing our fears, prejudices and impatience and opening our minds. Far from the Tree, an inspirational journey, also turns out to be an unexpected lesson in the difference between sympathy and empathy, as while firing the intellect it forces our feelings.