Andrew Solomon grew up a child with “weird hangups,” dressing in costumes, “obsessed” with the more morbid poems of Emily Dickinson, and with tragic opera.
His affluent parents indulged all of his idiosyncrasies, right up to the day he came out to them as gay. Years of brooding over this estrangement made him curious about how other families “managed” dealing with children very different from them — the degrees of support they gave to a child who might be “every parent’s nightmare” — autistic, born with Down Syndrome, dwarfism, even parents of kids who commit inhumanly cruel crimes.
Like the rest of us, Solomon has been stunned by the pace of societal changes in the attitudes toward homosexuality, a “disease” that was regarded as “treatable” in his youth, now commonly accepted and to varying degrees tolerated, even in the most intolerant corners of America.
Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” becomes Rachel Dretzin’s upbeat documentary of the same name, a film that celebrates “difference” even as it accepts the heartbreak and agonizing effort it takes for people and society to change attitudes towards those we have historically treated as “abnormal…diseased…retarded” and “broken.”
Dretzin profiles Solomon, and takes her camera into the lives of both the children born “different,” and the parents who found the focus, the energy and patience to make give their child the “freedom to be” at home in their family and in their world.
There’s Jason Kingsley, now 42, born with Down Syndrome in the ’70s, but fortunate enough to be born to New Yorkers who made educating him and proving the doctors who suggested warehousing him, “discarding him,” wrong. Jason lives in a group home now, has worked in a mailroom for decades. He quotes a little Shakespeare, revels in the ethos of the heroine of “Frozen” (“Let it Go”) and carries on frank discussions about his limitations and his future with his mother.
Back in the ’70s, no one would have thought any of that possible of someone “Mongoloid,” and medicine wasn’t operating along those lines. Emily, his mother, was a writer for “Sesame Street,” and father Charles was a painting contractor who made his son and his son’s misunderstood condition his cause.
Jason became a “Sesame Street” star, showing just how smart and adaptable someone with Down Syndrome could be. Jason and his parents almost single-handedly changed America’s attitudes about it.
Jack’s parents gave Dretzin access to home movies of his infancy, the bubbly child who soon made them realize he couldn’t communicate with them. “Autism” was the diagnosis, and like most every parent interviewed here, his mother, in particular, grappled with guilt over what she might have done during pregnancy to cause it.
“It was overwhelming,” his mother admits. “I didn’t want it.”
Then we see the therapy sessions that got through to the boy who cannot speak, the tearful reactions of Jack’s parents as they drift from opining that this time-consuming, tedious training was just a “parlor trick” to realizing they were watching a miracle of medical science at work.
Jack, using a computer/voice synthesizer keyboard not unlike Stephen Hawking’s, talks about his ultra-sensitivity to noise, about a life that is “like being a tiger in a cage” — at 13. We come to the same conclusion his parents did. Here’s a smart kid trapped in a body that won’t let him show it.
There’s a touch of affluence or at least comfort to almost all of the families presented here, because when you have money you can cast about for answers and devote the time and resources to finding help.
The more working class family of Loini, a lonely 23 year-old with dwarfism, are at a loss how to help her. She is isolated by her condition and life situation, until that magic day when she makes it to a Little People of America Convention. Her mother and sisters see the change that comes in finding one’s “tribe.”
The film then follows the happy, well-adjusted dwarf couple, Leah and Joe, who found each other in just that way. The outgoing activist Joe may be tied to a wheelchair, much of the time. But thinking “I must be miserable” is a mistake. He’s positively giddy around Leah.
Solomon’s thesis isn’t one that lends itself to being neatly adhered to in a documentary, as we see Dretzin break format, first with the dwarfs — we only meet Leah and Joe’s parents briefly, in the film’s upbeat coda — then when she tests that thesis on the Louisiana (now Texas) family of a teen murderer, Trevor Reese.
The murderer’s parents are focused on to the almost total exclusion of their son, and the film doesn’t dwell on this part of Solomon’s wide net of “acceptance” and opinion that “defectiveness is a matter of perspective.” Families find ways to carry on, to get over the misplaced guilt they feel, and will love their children and try to help them. But for society to make that leap seems naive and indeed destructive.
“Far from the Tree” reminds us of the rapid pace of change, driven by medical and social sciences. And it shows us parents who, rather than throwing up their hands and accepting the medical/societal status quo, make the effort to first accept their child as “different,” and then make the rest of us aware that “different” is, in most cases, nothing at all to be ashamed or afraid of.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Andrew Solomon, Jason, Jack, Loini, Leah and Joe, the Reese family.
Credits:Directed by Rachel Dretzin. An IFC/Sundance Selects release.
Running time: 1:33