Early in the documentary Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon says of the book he wrote by the same name “In telling these stories, I was investigating the very nature of family itself.” What he researched, and what the film explores, is children who are very different from their families, and the impact this has in their homes. Solomon grew up gay in a household that believed homosexuality was a sin. He was rejected by his mother.
The documentary, by Rachel Dretzin, visits with 5 families. Jason is a 41 year old man who loves Frozen and has Down Syndrome while his parents of course do not. He lives with a couple of roommates (the Three Musketeers, they call themselves) and a caregiver, but spends a lot of time with his mother. He grew up something of a celebrity, the poster child for “retarded” kids who could learn to read and write and socialize beyond what was normally credited to them. Jack is a 13 year old kid who has severe autism. He doesn’t speak but he’s clearly very intelligent. Though he has little control over his body, he has overcome numerous obstacles just to communicate with his parents. Loini is a bubbly 23 year old woman with dwarfism whose only wish is to be more independent. A convention where she’s finally able to meet other little people is like a welcome eye-opener; finally, someone understands. Leah and Joe are a married couple, both with dwarfism, who give birth to a baby with normal stature. What will parenting be like with a child who quickly outgrows you?
Though these “differences” in the children are nothing more than anomalies of nature, many parents originally blame themselves or feel some sort of guilt – was it a medication taken during pregnancy? a lack of sleep? the bed rest? The film, however, doesn’t give blame any space. Instead it shows parents going to great lengths just to connect with children they don’t necessarily relate to. The paths to love are in many ways the same (Jason’s mom recalls being told that her newborn was a “mongoloid” and that it was best to remove him to an institution immediately, “before a bond could occur” – while of course Jason’s mom had loved him since the moment she learned she was pregnant). In order to thrive as a family,these parents have become devoted to finding ways to connect with children they don’t necessarily relate to but love nonetheless. Love just as much. Leah and Joe talk about how they love each other for their “isms” (dwarfism) not despite them. I can see how this would be a balm to Solomon, who never got that from his own mother. That we can indeed have meaningful relationships with people who are not like us.
The last family (have you realized yet that I’ve only listed 4 of 5?) is a bit different. Their son, Trevor, murdered an 8 year old boy when he was just 16 himself. Can we still apply the lessons we’ve learned from the previous families to him? Can we accept that this is just how he was born, can we not blame his parents for who is he? Certainly, his situation is much different. Perhaps he was born with violent tendencies. Psychopathy may even be hereditary. But murder is still a choice, while Down Syndrome is not. The documentary takes up the same position though: that Trevor’s parents are not to blame. They’re still his mom and dad, they still love him, they still struggle to keep their family intact. But after falling in love with Jason, and having your heart melt over Jack, Trevor is a challenge. Can we, the audience, find the same empathy? Are we meant to?
I like a documentary that challenges me, and lining up Trevor besides these other individuals is indeed a test. I don’t believe it’s pass or fail, but we’ve all got room for improvement, and if this kind of confrontation leads to more empathy, it can’t be a bad thing.