'Far From The Tree' Celebrates Family Differences

Jul 20, 2018
Originally published on July 20, 2018 7:37 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even under the best of circumstances, parenting can be a challenge. Writer Andrew Solomon looked at what happens when that challenge is heightened by children who are not what their parents expected. He did that first in a bestselling book, "Far From The Tree," and now in a documentary based on that book. Our critic Bob Mondello calls the film a celebration of family and of difference.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: To frame six tales of what I'm going to call family dissonance, director Rachel Dretzin lets Andrew Solomon give us the why behind his writing "Far From The Tree," basically a seventh tale, his own story.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

ANDREW SOLOMON: I think my mother imagined that her first-born son would be part of the real mainstream, the kind of kid who was popular at school, athletic, at ease in the world and basically quite conventional. And instead she got me.

MONDELLO: The images that follow are of what Solomon calls a weirdo, a delicate teen in tights at Renaissance fairs or perched barefoot in pajamas atop a fireplace mantle. Solomon was flamboyantly, outwardly gay, and his parents were devastated. Wanting to understand that reaction, Solomon spent more than a decade looking at how other families tackled things like...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Dwarfism, an autistic child, a child who commits a crime - it's a tough thing sometimes for a parent to reconcile with.

SOLOMON: The stories I heard felt so alien at the beginning. But bit by bit, I realized that in telling these stories, I was investigating the very nature of family itself.

MONDELLO: We meet families and see how true that is - kids who've thrived where that outcome was unexpected...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was not a normal mother-son relationship ever.

MONDELLO: ...An autistic boy named Jack who locked inside his own body is a puzzle to his parents...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was overwhelming. I didn't want it.

MONDELLO: ...A puzzle to his classmates but extraordinary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He knows everything that John (ph) know. Did y'all get straight-A's last semester?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I got straight-A's.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He got straight-A's.

MONDELLO: Other stories involve parents who can't stop loving a child who committed a heinous crime...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You know as soon as you see him that the worst has happened, and it is not going to be OK.

MONDELLO: ...A mother who must convince a 40-year-old with Down syndrome that the princess from the animated film "Frozen" isn't a plausible girlfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You know what? I don't even know what's real or not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I know. (Laughter) That's a problem.

MONDELLO: What these disparate stories have in common is that they are more about identity than they are about illness or disability or stigma. They're about how difference helps to establish how you're seen, yes, but also who you are. The how-you're-seen part can alter. Solomon cites his own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

SOLOMON: There was a piece of me that felt broken. And the idea that you could accept or even celebrate the forms of your brokenness didn't come to me until a great deal later when the world around me changed.

MONDELLO: The images on screen are of a gay pride parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

SOLOMON: And I became fascinated by the process through which that happened.

MONDELLO: And also by the central question that drove the writing of his book.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

SOLOMON: How do we decide what to cure and what to celebrate?

MONDELLO: That's a big one. And while examples abound in the film, perhaps the most telling comes from a young woman named Leah, who's heading towards parenthood with a clear-eyed view of expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

LEAH SMITH: I think that every parent has a desire for their ideal child. You know, like, some people, like, think, I really want a girl. But if they have a boy, it's not the end of the world.

MONDELLO: Gender, though, isn't what concerns Leah. She and her husband each stand about 3 feet tall.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

SMITH: So I have a desire to have a little person. But if we had an average-sized child, I think I will still get it on a level because I understand what it's like to be different than your family.

MONDELLO: Because we all do, which raises the question of why we so value the average, the ordinary, the commonplace.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")

SOLOMON: As I went along meeting all of these people and hearing their stories, I found that everyone who has kids has kids with flaws and problems, and nobody goes around saying, I'd like to turn my kids in for a better model. You love your children. It isn't really up to you. They just have come along and changed you.

MONDELLO: And that's true, suggests this enormously affecting film, no matter how far from the tree they've fallen. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.