Far from the Tree (Sundance Selects, NR)

“T he apple never falls far from the tree” is one of those old saws that sounds worldly wise, but whose actual meaning is difficult to nail down. It is generally invoked to mean something like “children aren’t that different from their parents,” the truth of which depends not only on which children and which parents are under discussion, but also what you mean by “that different.”  After all, every person is a unique product of their genetic material and environment, so expecting a child to be a carbon copy of either parent would be ridiculous. On the other hand, because of that shared genetic material and environment, it’s reasonable to expect that a parent and child will be more similar than two strangers selected at random.

Still, sometimes children seem to be very different from their parents (of course, that depends on what you mean by “very” and “different,” but I think I’ll stop this line of thought before the snake eats its own tail). Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for identity looked at several hundred families in which children different from their parents in fairly obvious ways—a deaf child born to hearing parents, for instance. Or, as in Solomon’s own case, a gay child born to straight parents. It scooped up a lot of awards and served as inspiration for a documentary, Far from the Tree, directed by Rachel Dretzin.

I haven’t read the book version of Far from the Tree, but my understanding is that some of the stories in the documentary come from the book and some do not. In any case, those in the film seem to have been chosen with a view to creating maximum uplift, which can be either inspiring or cloying, depending on your taste in such matters. A little person finds her tribe at a convention of little people, while two other little people get married and start a family. An autistic boy learns to communicate and socialize. A man with Down syndrome finds happiness in living a semi-independent life. A father and son reconcile over the son’s sexual orientation. A family adjusts to life after one of their number commits an inexplicable murder. The last is potentially the most interesting story, particularly since documentaries usually shy away from such subject matter, but it receives short shrift in Far from the Tree.

The featured “different” individuals and their families seem to be leading lives of mutual acceptance. Crucially, they’ve also been able to the resources they need to lead the best lives that they can. This is not a given in contemporary America, but including stories of the poor, underserved, and dysfunctional, or even raising issues of class privilege and how these statuses interact with disability and difference, would have detracted from the heart-warming tone that Dretzin clearly wants to invoke.

The result is that Far from the Tree can seem like one big Hallmark card, offering a superficial view of the consequences of difference that minimizes the very concrete struggles faced by people who are not only different but also  don’t have access to the resources they need. To put it another way, it’s nice that the phenomenally rich Andrew Solomon and his phenomenally rich father were able to become reconciled over Andrew’s sexual identity, but they faced a whole lot fewer challenges on that journey than, say, an a poor teenager from a poor family whose parents kicked him out of the house. And while any family will face challenges in caring for an autistic child, those challenges are simply multiplied if the family is poor, lives in a rural area, does not know how to navigate the social services system, or otherwise has difficulty accessing the resources that will help the child. Far from the Tree‘s failure to acknowledge the very real role material circumstances play in family dynamics, as well as its lack of interest in philosophical questions, like why we seem to care about some differences but not others, prevents it from being anything more than a superficial, feel-good Oscar bait.    | Sarah Boslaugh

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