Brisk and deeply engrossing, Rachel Dretzin’s documentary “Far From the Tree” could serve as either an introduction to or a boiled-down version of Andrew Solomon’s 2012 best-selling book of the same title, about parents living with, adjusting to, and loving profoundly “different” children. The book is nearly 1,000 pages and covers over 300 families; the film is just over an hour and a half and deals with five.
Yet the movie offers rewards of its own, in that Dretzin and Solomon — who acts as the documentary’s host and whose personal journey is woven throughout — force us to rethink what we define as “normal” by showing the shimmering humanity (to use a phrase from the book) with which challenged people and the people who love them live fulfilled and happy lives. At its most radical and empathetic, “Far From the Tree” urges us to start thinking of disability in terms of identity, not as a locus of struggle but a place of being.
Dretzin and Solomon focus on families whose children have fallen “far from the tree” of their expectations: Jason, a grown man with Down syndrome and his mother; Jack, a teenage boy with autism; Loini, a young woman with dwarfism, and Leah and Joe, married dwarfs hoping to have a child; and — what feels like the film’s biggest stretch — Trevor, who’s serving a life sentence in prison for murdering a young boy when he was 16.
Solomon’s recounting of his own long struggle to accept his homosexuality in the face of strong parental resistance, to which the movie returns between each segment, feels tenuously connected to these other stories at first. Yet the filmmakers prompt a rethink as we consider that what once was a disease that needed to be cured or “fixed” is now generally accepted and often celebrated within the common range of being human.
So, too, have parental and societal views toward other “different” populations evolved over time, and the strongest sequences in Dretzin’s documentary capture that evolution in real time. Jack’s story is especially heartbreaking and then heart-stopping: Through family videotapes, we see a happy infant retreat behind a wall of misfiring neurons at 2, become a sometimes uncontainably violent child, and then, through the Rapid Prompting Method that allows some autistic people to communicate via keyboard, spell out sentences to his family.
The footage of that breakthrough is astounding: Jack taps out “I am trying and I am smart” before his body sags with the relief of finally being heard. Later, he describes to the director what it’s like to not be able to talk with a metaphor so charged and so evocative that it reduced the screening audience I was at to tears. The Rapid Prompting method has its share of controversies, which “Far From the Tree” doesn’t address, but in this one case, at least, its efficacy is undeniable.
Dretzin and Solomon want us to see these people as people rather than as problems, and they illustrate the process by which the parents have come to do so. (Not surprisingly, love has a lot to do with it, and one of the film’s points is that love simply isn’t a choice.) Jason Kingsley, who as a child became a minor celebrity of Down syndrome outreach — we see his long-ago appearance on “Sesame Street” — at 41 is settled into a life, a job, and something of a midlife crisis that his crush on Elsa from “Frozen” both illustrates and doesn’t help ease; his mother, Emily Perl Kingsley, is a compassionate firebrand who worries about what will happen to her son after she’s gone, even as we see the warm support structure Jason has with his two housemates, who also have Down syndrome.
Over and over, the film puts the notion of “normal” to the test. Joe, who gets around in a wheelchair, has a PhD and an unquenchable zest for life; he tells of random strangers saying “I’d kill myself if I were you” and wonders at everything they refuse to see. His wife, Leah, mulls over whether she wants their child to be a dwarf or average-sized – how far from the tree her own children should be, in other words. A unidentified hipster sage at a Little People of America convention in St. Louis talks of how the event allows men and women like him to be seen at last and then become invisible in their own normality.
The segment on the murderer — or, rather, his family, as the young man himself is never seen — is the documentary’s most tenuous and admittedly exploratory. The burden of guilt carried by Trevor’s mother and father (and even his two siblings, who say they won’t have children of their own now) is unassuaged and ever-present. They’ve come to accept that it will never go away, just as the murder itself will never be “explained,” and their coping is at times immensely and complexly touching.
Is Trevor another example of a child thought to be “broken” who should be reconsidered as “normal”? “Far From the Tree” doesn’t go that far, but as we listen to his parents talk with him over a monitored jailhouse phone line and the conversation sounds as if he’s calling in from college, your moral certainties of who’s human and who’s inhuman — as opposed to who’s capable of inhumane acts — may take a few dents. Anecdotal rather than clinical, more interested in lives than in statistics, “Far From the Tree” is an experience that, at its best, humbles a viewer into contemplating everything we don’t yet know but some day may.
Far From the Tree
Directed by Rachel Dretzin. With Andrew Solomon. At Kendall Square. 93 mins. Unrated (as PG: frank portrayals of children with disabilities and parental responses thereto).