How do parents cope with children who are different? Not just different from them, but different from what’s considered quote-unquote normal? That was the question asked by author and psychologist Andrew Solomon in his 1,000-page 2012 bestseller Far From the Tree. And it’s the question put forth in Rachel Dretzin’s intimate and inspiring (not to mention more concise) documentary of the same name.
No matter how many parenting manuals and how-to books expecting mothers and fathers may read, there’s no preparing for how one will deal with a child born with Down syndrome, autism, or dwarfism. And despite whatever structural shortcomings Dretzin’s film has, the miracle of it is how subtly it makes you go from thinking “there but for the grace of God go I…” to feeling compassion, respect, and total admiration for the way the parents in the movie deal with the unexpected hands that life has dealt both them and their children.
The first child we meet isn’t a child at all. His name is Jason and he’s a 41-year-old with Down syndrome. From childhood Jason was so gifted that he regularly appeared on Sesame Street and became something of a role model of highly developed kids with Down’s. When he was born, his mother says, the doctor told her that children like hers were usually “sent away” before an attachment could be made. Such a cruel fate never entered her mind. Still, she struggles. Now, in middle age, Jason has trouble differentiating fantasy from reality, and you can see how conflicted this makes his mother feel. Jason obsessively watches and rewatches Frozen and wants to travel to Norway to meet Elsa. You can sense his mother’s frustration when Jason keeps bringing this up, but she says to the camera with a shrug, “If it gives him comfort…what are you gonna do?”
Next, is teenage Jack. At 2 years old, Jack began to display signs of severe autism. He was unable to speak (he still can’t as a teenager) and would throw violent tantrums. Jack’s mother tells the camera with tears in her eyes that, at first, she blamed herself. Her husband can be seen watching home movies from before they knew their son was different, recalling how happy he was during this “before” period – before they knew. After visiting batteries of doctors and specialists, they discovered that Jack was, in fact, highly intelligent and funny. He just couldn’t express it. With the help of a computer, he can now communicate. The moment this first happened appears in the film – and it will reduce you to tears. Says his mother, “It was like I was meeting him for the first time.”
Then we meet Loini, a lonely 23-year-old little person who’s largely lived an isolated life because of her condition. Then we see her attend a Little People of America meet-up and it’s like she bursts out of her cocoon. With a thousand-watt smile, she says how good she feels to have finally found her “tribe.” There, we also meet Leah and Joe, a couple who are trying to have a child of their own. The movie, which has no shortage of uplifting moments, captures a hell of one when they visit the obstetrician and get some good news.
The last person we meet is Trevor – even if we don’t actually meet him at all. Trevor was arrested as a teenager for murdering an 8-year-old boy. Now in prison, his parents wrestle with their guilt and keeping their family in tact and upbeat while feeling like pariahs – like they did something wrong. While their struggle is enormous and horrible, this section seems slightly out of place next to the others.
All of the families in Far From the Tree are compelling — their trials unimaginable and their spirits indomitable. You’ll want to have a box of Kleenex handy. If there’s a flaw with the film, it’s Dretzin’s decision to bookend each case study with interviews with Andrew Solomon, whose own long and painful journey to come to terms with his homosexuality and his mother’s rejection is fascinating but a bit out of place. Still, the documentary is a true celebration of difference without sugarcoating the hardships these parents – and these kids – face. They all find a way to carry on and find a sort of happiness even if it’s not the happiness they once imagined. What other choice do they have? B+