Review: ‘Far From the Tree’ Zooms In on Parent-Child Divides

Posted July 20, 2018 2:04 a.m. EDT

At an hour and a half, the often-inspiring documentary “Far From the Tree” plays like a companion piece to or a preview for Andrew Solomon’s best-selling 2012 book, which, with notes, runs more than 1,000 pages. But its goal is similar: The director, Rachel Dretzin, and Solomon, a professor of clinical psychology who is both a producer and an on-camera presence here, set out to explore families in which parents and children differ profoundly, whether because of innate factors (Down syndrome, dwarfism) or divergences (the film introduces us to a mother and father whose son was convicted of murder).

The lone holdover from the book is Jason, who has Down syndrome (as a child, he made regular appearances on “Sesame Street”)and sometimes struggles to tease out fiction from reality. He longs to travel to Norway because he harbors a crush on Elsa from “Frozen,” a yearning that his mother attributes to a desire to feel attached to someone who can’t leave him following the death of his father.

There is Jack, a teenager with autism who is unable to speak. Thanks to old video footage, Dretzin is able to show us a breakthrough at a clinic in Austin, Texas, when Jack used a stencil-letter tool to communicate with his parents. Wearing noise-canceling earbuds, he gets straight A’s and — joking as he prepares for dental work — is unafraid to show a sense of humor.

Solomon also relates, sometimes superfluously in this context, his own life story and how his acceptance of being gay influenced the writing of the book. Like some of the conditions in the film, homosexuality was once regarded as an illness but is now seen as an identity — a shift toward acceptance whose implications hover over the rest of the movie. We meet Leah and Joe, a married couple with dwarfism who are hoping to have a child. Leah wants a little person, but if her child is average-sized, she says, she’ll understand the dynamic intuitively, because she grew up different from those raising her.

The outlier here is the family of Trevor, who killed an 8-year-old when he was 16 and ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Although the shame has reverberated for the family (Trevor’s siblings are reluctant to have children of their own), the emphasis here is on how Trevor’s former household has coped. (“You love your children,” his mother says. “You don’t get to choose to love them.”)

While the segment is thought-provoking, its feints at uplift feel forced and dubious — a way of smoothing over the complications in Solomon’s ideas about differences and happiness.

“Far From the Tree”

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.