If you’ve read enough of these film reviews, you’ve probably seen me kvetch about documentaries. It’s a style of filmmaking I rarely take to, one that, despite its dedication to showing real life, is too often antithetical to what I want out of film as a form. This doesn’t mean I despise all documentaries, but rather that it’s rare that I’m actually drawn to one. However, every so often I’ll come across a documentary that surpasses the constrictions imposed by both its form and the often granular, obsessive nature of the genre to create something genuinely universal. Rachel Dretzin’s Far From the Tree is exactly on of those films.
The film is “based” on Andrew Solomon’s award-winning book of the same name, but feels more like a elaboration of Solomon’s work. The idea behind Solomon’s book (as stated by Solomon himself, who often appears in the film) was to explore the ways in which families experience things like disability or otherness, while the movie is very much in the same vein. The germ for the book, for instance, grew from Solomon’s coming out to his homophobic mother and his struggles with wanting a “normal” life.
In the same way, the film explores “otherness” not as a fault, but more toward creating a means of understanding. Mostly, the movie explores raising children with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism or dwarfism less as a constant stream of hardships (though there are aspects that are inherently difficult) and more as simply an aspect of life, one with the potential for love and living a truly full life, even with an extra amount of struggle and stress.
Far From the Tree doesn’t simply stop at this point however, getting into much more morally and emotionally complex areas. One family, for instance, is forced to reckon with their son being convicted of murder and being sentenced to life in prison, but still having love for him. The simplest thesis you can attach to the film is that parenting is a complex gamble. The reality of parenting might be different from the dream, but there is still love and a certain responsibility that’s inherent with child rearing. It’s a noble notion and one that Far From the Tree handles with tenderness and true emotion. There’s genuine empathy and weight here within the filmmaking and the film’s subjects, making for an exploration of family that feels touching, honest and complex. Not rated. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.