Let’s say you’re pregnant. It’s quite possibly the happiest and most anxiety-inducing time of your life. And then the doctor delivers the news: Your baby will be born with Down syndrome, deafness, or dwarfism. How do you react? Or maybe you’ve been a proud parent for years, and somewhere along the way, when your child reaches age 2 or 12 or 20, you learn that he has autism, identifies as transgender, or has been arrested for murder.
For centuries of human existence, such surprises have been greeted with horror by some parents, who have been known to surrender, institutionalize, or even disown their children on account of these culturally shameful differences — often the very things that make them special. Wrestling with what he perceived as a lack of love from his mother and father in reaction to his own homosexuality, Columbia University psychology professor Andrew Solomon wrote “Far From the Tree,” a massive study of the ways people deal with so-called difficult children.
But Solomon’s book was more than a parenting manual. It was an opportunity for empathy and an invitation to rethink the way we perceive difference in modern society — and it’s no wonder that he was bombarded by offers to adapt it for the screen. For those who know the best-seller, director Rachel Dretzin’s film will likely come as a gift, far easier to recommend to friends than the 1,000-page doorstop, condensing Solomon’s most inspiring points (many of which he delivers himself, acting as a kind of emcee) into a mere 93 minutes while offering audiences the all-important chance to get to know four unconventional offspring and the parents who wrestled with the challenge of raising them.
It may sound churlish in the face of such an open-hearted project not to embrace the film exactly as presented. And yet, movies have been beating this same drum for decades. From “David and Lisa” (a then-cutting-edge look at love between a young couple in a mental institution, named best film of 1962 by Time magazine) to “The Elephant Man” (David Lynch’s profoundly empathetic portrait of a misunderstood “freak,” produced by none other than Mel Brooks) to “The Miracle Worker” (the Helen Keller story, which earned Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft an Oscar), this is what movies do: They offer perhaps the easiest and most effective opportunity to identify with people who are different from ourselves — not just children, but adults as well.
So, in presenting four case studies, “Far From the Tree” delivers a flyover view of their lives, never reaching the impact that other films focused on individual characters have achieved. Jack suffers from a severe case of autism that causes him to thrash uncontrollably, and the film re-creates a scene in which a specialist breaks through to him — reminiscent of “Life, Animated,” the 2016 documentary about how Disney movies helped parents communicate with a child with a similar condition.
As it happens, 41-year-old Jason Kingsley, who has Down syndrome and requires special care, is obsessed with Disney’s “Frozen.” His parents are an illuminating case, refusing to see his condition as an impairment and insisting on proving that he could be a normal child: When Jason was young, he learned to read and count, and he even appeared on “Sesame Street” (for which mom Emily Perl Kingsley worked). But there came a point when he stopped developing like other kids, and his mother quite candidly shares how difficult that was for her to accept.
The film follows 23-year-old Loini, who was born with dwarfism, to a Little People of America convention, where this young woman who grew up feeling alone is delighted to discover others like herself. There, Dretzin shifts her attention to Leah and Joe, who met and fell in love at one such gathering, and who are now trying to have a child together. This segment is easily the most fascinating in the film, as it plays on ideas — both cultural and scientific — about giving unborn children a chance to be “normal.” But what is normal?, the movie is right to ask. What if Leah and Joe want their child to resemble them? It wasn’t so long ago that eugenicists advocated the sterilization of people with disabilities — and though that idea isn’t mentioned, its specter remains.
Dretzin rounds off the group portrait with a young man named Trevor, who was arrested for killing an 8-year-old boy. His mother admits that she often omits Trevor from conversation when asked about her kids, and his two siblings have apparently both decided not to have children, having witnessed how Trevor’s behavior affected their parents. A case like this seems to demand its own film (Werner Herzog examined some of these issues in his death row documentary “Into the Abyss”) and feels conspicuously out of place here, since the other cases are more biological in nature, whereas there’s no medical explanation for his criminality.
To what extent is struggling to accept a child who’s capable of murder the same as, say, what Solomon’s parents went through when he came out? And for that matter, are the challenges of raising a deaf child similar to parenting someone with Down syndrome? “Far From the Tree” feels like an important first step in reorienting our thinking about a wide variety of “difference,” and yet, there are real differences to be reckoned with between the categories Solomon examines.
What about a coal miner devastated that his ballet-prodigy son refuses to follow in his footsteps, as depicted in “Billy Elliot”? Or how about a conservative Jewish couple upset by their son’s decision to date a gentile, à la “Liberty Heights”? Aren’t all of these also variations on the quite normal fact that children defy their parents’ expectations, and haven’t there already been excellent movies dealing with virtually every permutation one can imagine? Good intentions aside, “Far From the Tree” puts all its energy into disproving a thesis that many of us don’t actually believe — that the tree is inherently perfect, and that anything other than a direct copy of one’s parents is a crisis in need of resolving.