In the thoughtful but somewhat disjointed documentary “Far From the Tree,” director Rachel Dretzin explores the bond between parents and children — and whether that bond is strengthened or stretched thin when the children are markedly different from their parents.
Dretzin begins this documentary with her source material, the 2012 book by Andrew Solomon. Solomon spent 10 years interviewing families of all stripes, after dealing with his own difference from his parents: He is gay, and his discovery of this fact of his life was not immediately welcomed by his patrician parents.
This set Solomon, now 54, on a quest to understand other children who were different than their parents — a quest that Dretzin takes up in the film.
Dretzin introduces us to Jason, a 41-year-old with Down syndrome, living semi-independently with two roommates who are also adults with Down syndrome. Then there’s Jack, 13, who has severe autism and can communicate via a keyboard he taps. Or there’s Loini, 22, a little person who is thrilled with her first visit to the Little People of America’s convention, where she gets to meet others with dwarfism and, for the first time, realize she’s not alone.
The LPA convention yields two of the most fascinating subjects in Dretzin’s film: Leah and Joe, a fun and feisty couple who talk most passionately (and eloquently, since Joe is a philosophy professor) about why they’re happy being the size they are — and are eager to bring their own child into the world.
The one story that feels the most jarring involves Trevor, who as a 16-year-old in Louisiana ambushed an 8-year-old boy on a forest trail and slit his throat. Trevor’s parents talk about the anguished questions they asked after their son’s crime, and the battery of psych tests that only revealed the vague answer that “our son is broken.”
That story feels out of place with the rest because Trevor isn’t interviewed, since he’s serving a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He’s the only child whose viewpoint is kept from us.
Dretzin gathers these stories with care and sensitivity, intercutting them with Solomon’s journey toward accepting himself as gay and, ultimately, being accepted by his father.
Together, the stories in “Far From the Tree” illustrate Solomon’s conclusion from his book research, that life is actually the opposite of Leo Tolstoy’s observation that “happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Solomon found that unhappy families tend to be the same, and what’s remarkable — and what the movie demonstrates — is “all the different ways people find to be happy.”
‘Far From the Tree’
Opened July 20 in select cities; opens Friday, August 24, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably PG-13 for descriptions of violence and sexual material. Running time; 93 minutes.