When there is an imperfect fit, who's accountable, the round peg or the square hole? Both? Neither? In the sensitive documentary "Far From the Tree," the question concerns seven families and children dealing with an unexpected mismatch — dwarfism, Down syndrome, sexual identity, autism or more. The film shows in detail the loving embrace or grudging tolerance that follows less than ideal circumstances.
The film is based on the nonfiction bestseller by Andrew Solomon, who spent a decade researching and writing on the topic of such challenging family relationships. A regular contributor to the New Yorker, NPR and the New York Times Magazine, and a professor of psychology at Columbia University, Solomon also co-produced the film and appears at length, adding a deep personal perspective.
The subtitle of his book, "Parents, Children and the Search for Identity," is the focus of the film, a binary view showing the perspectives of both sides. It presents parents who honestly recount their struggles with the grief that their child didn't conform to the standard view of normality. Their children, in almost every case, have equal chances to express their different perspective.
Solomon shares his experience as the exceptional single child of disappointed, intractable parents. He had what he calls "weird hangups" throughout childhood, dressing in medieval costumes, obsessing over morbid poetry and opera. And he grew up gay in an era when homosexuality was widely condemned and considered a disorder in psychiatric circles. After backing his youthful eccentricities, his parents felt he had crossed a line, withdrawing their approval and pressuring him to change his innermost concept of himself.
Capably filmed by director Rachel Dretzin, this look at a diverse group of people is emotionally powerful without feeling manipulative. It simply observes the love, effort, loyalty and sadness family members experience together or alone. Some parents seem fully committed to helping their offspring have the fullest, most inclusive lives possible. Others candidly admit their feelings of distress at bearing a child that led them to a life far outside their expectations.
The parents of Jack Allnutt, whose autism creates uncontrollable physical spasms and resulting anger issues, share their misguided guilt that they had done something wrong to cause it. They were anguished over trying ineffective therapies to cope with his condition. "It was overwhelming," his mother confesses. "I didn't want it."
Hard as it is to see, theirs is finally a story of upbeat optimism. We see their personal videos over years as language therapy enables Jack to type the thoughts he can't express otherwise, making them feel as if he was a stranger they just met for the first time. Using a speech synthesizer, he is now an articulate teen earning straight A's in high school.
One story of diversity is genuinely horrific. We meet a well-to-do family whose 16-year-old son waited in a park near their home and inexplicably slashed the throat of an 8-year-old. As Trevor Reese serves his life sentence, his mother cuts him from some aspects of her life, but not others. She has moved his teenage sister and brother from Louisiana to Texas, and she never mentions Trevor to a new acquaintance. But she accepts his almost daily phone calls from prison and ends every conversation with "Love you."
At the Little People of America Convention, a panel of activists wrestle with the medical research that could eliminate dwarfism, saying they don't feel it's a disorder that needs to be cured. Dretzin follows Leah Smith and Joseph Stramando, a charming short-statured couple, through childbirth, with Leah sharing her mild preference that their baby will grow up just as they did.
In other cases, people simply call a truce with fate. Emily Kingsley and her husband Charles ignored doctors who callously advised them their son Jason's Down syndrome would land him in an institution. Now in his early 40s, he happily lives with two friends who share his condition.
As Solomon notes, over his decade of reporting he's not met one parent who said, "I'd like to turn my child in for a better model." In a year with an impressive crop of documentaries, this earns a place near the top.