In his massive 2012 book “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon wanted to understand how parents handle children with who are vastly different from themselves. Solomon himself decided to cover this topic while trying to understand his mother’s frustrations at his own homosexuality. Despite trying to become “normal,” Solomon came away discovering that – as he states in this adaptation of his book – that “who I was wasn’t changeable.” Director Rachel Dretzin’s take on Far From the Tree takes this same approach, chronicling five various families – not counting Solomon himself – and how they’ve dealt with challenges in their descendants.
Dretzin mostly chooses to focus on cases where medical difficulties affect the families in question. Jason is a 41-year-old with Down Syndrome, whose mother showed that Jason could develop similarly to children his own age. As an adult and after losing his father, Jason has stagnated in ways that his mother and himself didn’t expect. Jason has a hard time distinguishing fiction from reality, and wants to take a trip to Norway, since he has fallen in love with Elsa from Frozen.
Jack is a child with an extreme version of autism, whose family struggled to speak with him, but have discovered that Jack is quite a smart child trapped in a body he can’t quite control.
Dretzin also goes to a Little People of America convention, following Loini – who was born with dwarfism and has never been around other people like her. But once Loini is at the convention, Dretzin switches her interest to Leah & Joe, who also met at one of these events, fell in love and now want to conceive their own child.
Finally, Dretzin shows a case that isn’t biological with Trevor, a teenager who killed an eight-year-old and is now serving a life sentence in jail. Even though this situation has caused immense trauma in Trevor’s family, they saw the incident did ultimately bring them closer together.
While Solomon’s book was almost a thousand pages, Dretzin’s film is around an hour and a half, and still attempts to cover the same range of people. Because of this, some of these stories can be spread a bit too thin. Dretzin gives plenty of time to Leah & Joe, who receive the most fully-rounded story, but someone like Loini is all but forgotten. It’s understandable that these stories don’t have complete arcs – these are real lives and not fictional stories after all – but many of these stories feel like a beginning and a middle with no real ending.
Far From the Tree shows the positive side of how love can help parents get through even the hardest situations with their children. Dretzin doesn’t hide the difficulties of these situations for the parents. Jason’s mother doesn’t know how to get his son to realize that Elsa isn’t real, while with Jack and Trevor’s parents, it’s almost as if their issues could easily tear these families apart. Yet Dretzin never allows these stories to get too dark, in terms of how they test the love in these families. As Trevor’s mother says – in what could easily be the tagline for the film – “You love your children; you don’t get to choose to love them.”
Dretzin’s thesis apparently seems to be that in most of these cases, these aren’t problems to be eradicated, they’re just differences from the norm that should be accepted. This is obvious, clearly true point to make, but it doesn’t make the uplifting stories that Dretzin tells any less remarkable and powerful. It’s just a shame that Dretzin doesn’t have as much room to capture these stories as Solomon did, as each of these people could’ve had their own feature-length documentaries chronicling their experiences. Far From the Tree shows that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all, but it absolutely helps.
While Dretzin’s film doesn’t have as much room to capture these stories as Solomon did, these stories of love and family each deserve their own feature-length documentaries.