The feature doc Far From The Tree is the second film this week to remind me, in both rather tender and somewhat challenging ways, what it has been like to have grown up with a disability.
In my case, I'm a paraplegic/double amputee living with spina bifida whose parents refused to buy into nearly every prediction, recommendation, and limitation that was thrust upon my family in favor of what most would consider to have been a naive, possibly ignorant faith in ability over disability.
While Far From The Tree isn't a documentary about disability, it is a documentary about parents who embark on a journey toward acceptance of what many would consider to be their "one-of-a-kind" children. Based on Andrew Solomon's New York Times bestseller of the same name, Far From The Tree explores the very intimate, vulnerable worlds of its subjects in ways that are, at least for the most part, dignified and brimming with authenticity.
There's a mother whose now adult son with Down Syndrome has always lived in the home despite early life recommendations that he be institutionalized before they "bonded." Jason, an eloquent man, has perhaps the film's most vividly realized story and is one of only two stories here, Solomon's being the other, that are directly from Solomon's book.
There's a couple working to learn how to communicate with their incredibly bright son who is nonverbal and has autism. Jack's story is the most heartbreaking, an aching young man with obvious intelligence who struggles to break through his communication challenges. At one point, Jack communicates through a letter board the sentence "I'm smart and I'm trying" as those around him try desperately to introduce him to the world of communication. If you're not crying, you're inhumane. That's all there is to it.
There's the story of Loini, Leah, and Joe, three people whose paths cross at an annual conference. While Loini is essentially looking for her place in the world, Leah and Joe find each other, fall in love, marry, and set out to start a family. Their stories are immensely involving, Leah's out loud advocacy giving life to a question the film raises time and again - When do we celebrate and when do we fight for a cure?
There's also a deeply moving, and perhaps the most challenging story thread, about a mother whose 16-year-old son committed an unthinkable crime. Trevor, whom everyone believed to be your ordinary 16-year-old boy, wakes up one day and inexplicably slits the throat of an eight-year-old boy. It's a crime that can't be explained, while Dretzin admirably balances his mother's maternal instinct with the family's essentially blocking him out of the family scene and eventually relocated even while still accepting his calls from prison.
There's Solomon himself in what is almost unquestionably the film's weakest thread, a gay man whose parents grieved his existence as an aberration in a family where everything they wanted in their first child is not what they got from him. Solomon's story is compelling, but his delivery of the story has a histrionic tone to it that feels out of place alongside the other stories.
Directed by Rachel Dretzin, Far From The Tree arrives in Indy on August 17th at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema. In a town most noted cinematically for its Heartland International Film Festival, a film like Far From The Tree should be an easy sell even if the film itself never quite delves deep enough into its subject matter and never quite goes deeper into why these people represented are viewed as anything less than normal to begin with. Instead, Far From The Tree is content for the most part to trust the emotional appeal of its characters and the appeal of their stories.
Far From The Tree isn't a perfect film, but it's a beautiful film that for the most part accomplishes what it sets out to do even if it is, one could say, less effective than one might hope it would be in challenging what it means to be normal. It's a beautiful, meaningful film that powerfully illustrates what it's like to be "different" for those who are different and their families.
For more information on Far From The Tree, visit the film's website linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic