If you are not familiar with the work of Dr. Andrew Solomon, his new documentary film, Far From the Tree (a film by Rachel Dretzin, based on Dr. Solomon’s book of the same title), provides a poignant window into his life and mind, as well as to some of the most beautiful families you will ever encounter.
The film is in premiering at DOC NYC on Friday, November 10, 2017 at the SVA Theatre in New York, New York. Sundance Selects will release the film Summer 2018.
Good Men Project Director of Special Projects, Michael Kasdan, had the chance to preview the film and to chat with Dr. Solomon about it.
His review follows.
For the uninitiated, Dr. Solomon is an activist, and preeminent thinker and writer addressing the fields of LGBT rights, mental health, education and the arts. His TED talks on depression (Depression: The Secret That We Share), resilience (How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are) and parenting (Love, no matter what) have garnered millions of views, and deservedly so. His most recent book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (2012) was a New York Times Bestseller and won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction.
Inspired in part by his family’s struggle to accept him as a gay man, Far from the Tree, was the result of years of research and interviews by Dr. Solomon on children who fall “far from the tree” in a variety of ways. He draws on stories about sexual and gender orientation, physical and developmental deviations like dwarfism, deafness, Downs Syndrome, and autism, and behavioral anomalies such as criminality. The collection of stories and Dr. Solomon’s incisive examination of these families, imprints upon the reader that while each form of difference can feel isolating and be painfully difficult to deal with, if we recognize that everyone struggles with such differences we can arrive at profound truths about love and family. Along the way, Dr. Solomon grapples with universally difficult themes, such as illness vs. identity, the bond between parents and their children, and the beauty that can be born from struggle.
As Filmmaker Rachel Dretzin said: “He showed the beauty and the purpose of caring deeply for someone who isn’t easy to care for. It’s an experience that reveals your own compassion to you, revealing things you might not know about yourself.”
Ms. Dretzin’s translation of Dr. Solomon’s book into film form is transcendent. It is – simply put – a beautiful and inspirational feat of storytelling out of the mouths of parents and children. While this is, on one level, a movie about disability and difference, it succeeds in being a more universally relatable film about family and an investigation into the very nature of family itself, in all of its diverse messy glory. “You love your kids. It’s not up to you. They just come along and change you.” This is not merely a film about disabled people; it is a film about the larger questions of how any of us arrive at a coherent identity.
And while it is a film about struggle – giving the viewer an inside look into the trials, tribulations and pain of parents raising a non-responsive autistic son or of a woman who has dwarfism who has never met anyone like her or dated – it is equally a powerful film about love and joy. As Dr. Solomon says, “What is remarkable is all the different ways people find to be happy.”
The film follows the stories of a compelling set of characters and families with a range of experiences whose stories and depth of character bring all of these complex themes to life. Themes of identity,resilience and beauty in struggle are powerfully illustrated. Far From the Tree shows us how families deal with having a child who is so different from them and how one can go from experiencing that difference as a tragedy, to experiencing it as something with real value and beauty.
In Dr. Solomon’s words, the families chosen for the film “form a constellation that represents the major issues in the book:”
There is Brian, a man with Downs Syndrome, who is a remarkable and complex emotional person, who shares a beautiful friendship with his two housemates, a loving relationship with his mom, and a strong bond to the character Elsa from Frozen.
There is Jack and his family. Because of his autism, Jack could not communicate to his family for years and writhed in frustration until a break-through where he learned to communicate by spelling out letters and words and was finally able to communicate to his family: “I’m trying. And I’m really smart.”
Joe and his wife, Leah, are a married couple with dwarfism. Joe is confined to a motorized wheelchair. As Joseph said, “Once this guy said to me, man, if I were you, I would kill myself…He felt I must be miserable and I think that it’s probably a pretty common assumption. What body you are in has everything to do with your perspective of the world.” Joseph, who is a brilliant and funny and engaging Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Diego State University, says, “When you see people like me, the core experience is negative. People have very low expectations. It’s surprising to them when I indicate somehow that I’m not suffering.” As you watch Joe and Leah deal with family, pregnancy, and everyday life, you can’t help but to smile and feel connected.
There is also Loini, a 25-year-old woman with dwarfism who had lived a very sheltered life with her mother and felt very much alone. The film captures Loini’s amazed delight as she beholds a hotel lobby full of little people at the Little People of America convention— alone, in couples or large groups of friends. For the first time in her life, she blends into the crowd and it is her mother who stands out as different. During that weekend she meets a woman named Maddie and a friendship blossoms. “It was wonderful to find someone one who is like you,” Loini confides with tears. “I found my first friend who can understand me.”
Finally, we meet the Reese family, whose elder son Trevor committed a terrible crime. He is an inmate at maximum security Angola State prison, sentenced to life for a crime his parents never imagined he could commit. Trevor and his family speak on the phone about day to day family life, as if he is away at college. But his crime is present and runs through the lives of the whole family. The tragic story of the Reese family is another story of about the steadfastness of parental love. “Their child has done the most heinous thing you can do and they are devastated by that,” says co-Director and co-Producer Jamila Ephron. “You don’t blame a child for having dwarfism. It’s very hard to not blame a child for committing a murder. But their love for him is unshaken.”
As Dr. Solomon put it, “I felt it was very important [to include this kind of story] because the book is about how families deal with difference, so it’s about how my family dealt with my being gay, it’s about how these families of children with disabilities and challenges have dealt with those, and I felt that crime needed to be in there to show the spectrum of difference that we were looking at so it doesn’t seem like it’s a disabilities rights film; it’s an identity film, and it’s about how families deal with children who force them into identifies other than the one’s they thought they’d have.”
The movie also interweaves Solomon’s own story about being gay, different both from the mainstream and different from his parents, and his struggle with his own family to negotiate that difference. He says that the experience of writing the book and making the film were important steps in understanding his own family. “I used to confuse love and acceptance,” he says. “And through my coming out, I felt unloved by my parents—but as I went along meeting these people and hearing their stories I found that while love should exist from the cradle, acceptance is a lifelong process, whether your kid has an obvious different or not. And my parents always loved me; they just struggled to accept me—as every parent struggles to accept his or her child. The book and then the film allowed me to forgive my parents for their struggles to forgive me.
In many ways, the Far From the Tree heralds the value of a more diverse planet. “I would like to think that the film actually conveys a message, not only of tolerance, but of admiration for people who are different,” says Solomon. “It’s about resilience, of course, but it’s most profoundly about the larger social question of having a society that in its totality embraces a variety of human experiences.”
The film is a must watch for humans of all shapes, sizes, and types.
Far From the Tree is premiering at DOC NYC on Friday, November 10, 2017 at the SVA Theatre in New York, NY. Sundance Selects will release the film Summer 2018. More information is available here.
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Photo Credit: Andrew Solomon and Rachel Dretzin