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Parents Just Don't Understand: 'Far From The Tree' Profiles Kids Who Confound Expectations

Jul 19, 2018

All children disappoint their parents from time to time, but most offspring are not profoundly different from what was expected — at least once they pass through the fire of adolescence. Author and psychologist Andrew Solomon had a more alienating experience. He felt he was utterly unacceptable to his family, which led him to write Far from the Tree, chronicling more than 300 cases of difficult upbringings.

Rachel Dretzin's documentary has the same title and explores the same theme, yet it's not exactly an adaptation. The movie introduces just seven families and only one (aside from Solomon's) featured in the book. That means each story is more distinct, and the link between them sometimes feels tenuous. While the movie details fascinating characters and offers poignant moments, the narrower focus is problematic.

Solomon is a gay man who as a child considered himself simply a "weirdo." His dilemma was society's (and his parents') attitude toward his identity. Today, he's part of mainstream New York society. He's also married and a father, which gives him a useful perspective on the struggles of parents whose children will never fit neatly into their world.

The movie introduces Jason, a high-functioning middle-aged man with Down syndrome. (His younger self, once a Sesame Street regular, is in the book.) There's also Jack, an autistic teenager who describes himself as "really smart," but who cannot speak. And Trevor, who committed a horrible crime. None of them will ever live independently.

The other subjects are Loini, Leah, and Joe, first seen together at a Little People of America convention. They have challenges, but can face them on their own.

Leah and Joe hope to have a child together, something Jason, Jack, and Trevor are unlikely ever to do. Meanwhile, Trevor's two siblings say they will never produce children, lest they experience again the shock and pain their brother brought on them and their parents.

These are resonant thematic notes, since Solomon says that in writing his book he was "investigating the very nature of family itself."

None of the six accounts are unworthy or uninteresting, but the book reached more broadly, including prodigies, transgender individuals, people who are deaf, and children conceived in rape. The documentary basically presents two kinds of kids: Those who can express themselves fully and those who can't.

The role of the parents varies from episode to episode, with Jack's mother the most touchingly willing to recall her misplaced sense of guilt. It might have been illuminating to meet some parents who are less accepting than the ones seen here.

That would have been difficult to get on film, of course. Like most contemporary documentaries, Far from the Tree is tethered to the available footage. The stylistically ordinary movie offers no broader commentary other than Solomon's recollections of his past travails and his inspiration to begin the book.

That's why the movie plays more like a sketch than a full study. The odd thing is that it's a sketch for a larger work that already exists.

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