Documentary Offers Heartwarming Stories of Difference and Identity, but They Don’t Add Up to Much
DIRECTED BY RACHEL DRETZIN/2018
We’re in the middle of a year of extraordinary documentaries. In a less stellar year, Far from the Tree might stand out for it’s humane, gracious view of diverse group of families. But in the light of documentaries like RBG, Whitney, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the failings of Far from the Tree seem a little starker and easier to spot.
Far from the Tree was directed by Rachel Dretzin and based on Andrew Solomon’s book of the same name. Solomon’s own experience of coming out to his devastated parents led to his quest to understand how other parents respond to having children who are very different from themselves. The book was a massive undertaking, based on interviews with hundreds of families. The movie reduces the the scope of Solomon’s examination down to a handful of stories. And yet, that handful still results in a film that feels scattershot and muddled.
Dretzin seems unclear on what Far from the Tree is about. What is the through line between each of the families highlighted? Solomon’s narration raises issues of identity and acceptance. Tracking his own journey as a gay man, he reflects on the shift society has made from viewing homosexuality as a defect to something to be celebrated. Perhaps, Solomon suggests, this is how all disabilities should be seen. Most of the stories in Far from the Tree point in this direction, sharing families’ experiences with Down’s Syndrome, autism, and dwarfism. Or perhaps the film is helping the viewer develop empathy for what it must be like to live as one who is radically different from those around you. That, too, is a dominant theme, expressed most poignantly by Lioni, a young woman with dwarfism who longs for a friend who understands her, who wonders “Is there anyone out there like me?” But there’s another family featured whose story is such a radical departure from the rest – of a teenager from a middle class family who committed a brutal murder – that it seems to blow a hole in the film’s coherence. Trevor’s “difference” is not one that can be celebrated. There’s no positive spin to put on either what sets him apart from other young men, or on the damage it’s done to his family.
Despite publicity indicating the movie is about parenting, Far From the Tree is really more broadly about family – both families of origin and the families that we form to feel more at home in the world. Lioni’s face radiates joy as she attends her first convention of little people. Jack, an autistic teenager who communicates through a keyboard talks about his band of autistic friends as his “tribe”. Jason, a man with Down’s Syndrome tells his apartment mates (who both also have Down’s Syndrome) that after 13 years of living together they are more than friends. They are a “family of friends”. And Joe and Leah, a married couple who both have dwarfism, earnestly hope that when they have a child he or she will be a little person like they are. As much as Far from the Tree celebrates differences, it also drives home how wearing it can to be to always be different from the people close to you.
Joe and Leah’s story encapsulates both the strengths and weakness of Far from the Tree. They are a charming pair – funny, engaging, clearly devoted to each other. But they almost seem to have been added into the film, despite their story not aligning with the rest of movie’s structure. We first meet Leah at the little people convention that Lioni is attending. Suddenly quiet, homebody Lioni and her doting mother are shunted aside for the charismatic, outspoken Leah and her philosophy professor husband, Joe. But what it was like to parent Leah and Joe – purportedly the central idea of the film – is barely dealt with.
The individual stories in Far from the Tree are fascinating, but they remain discrete, isolated, and so risk treating the subjects as curiosities. Solomon speaks as if his quest led him to some larger meaning in these stories, but it’s missing from the film. There’s much to appreciate in the lives represented, and viewers will find themselves both laughing and weeping. It’s a crowd-pleasing film, but less profound than Solomon’s narration would lead you to believe.