Far From The Tree: A Documentary Review

Far From The Tree: A Documentary Review
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<p><em>Leah and Joe</em></p>

Leah and Joe

Participant Media

Far From The Tree

A documentary film by Rachel Dretzin, from the book by Andrew Solomon

Review by Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

But you…have to accept {your children} and help them believe that you’d never want anything but who they truly are.

— Andrew Solomon, PhD

What does a gifted author do after he has spent 10 years writing a masterpiece, winning over 50 awards, in this case Far From The Tree (FFTT)? He doesn’t, probably cannot, stop there, and we are the beneficiaries.

FFTT, the book, was vast in its coverage, introducing us to people who are deaf, dwarfs, with Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, prodigies, children of rape, children who commit violent crimes, transgender individuals and those affected by a disability (including those with developmental delays and disabilities, once called mental retardation). The scope of the inquiry in Dr. Solomon’s book was so broad that short of a giving us a full day at the movies he and Rachel Dretzin (producer and director) had to narrow their selection of stories, while still amply illustrating the essential nature of parental - and familial - love.

<p><em>Andrew Solomon</em></p>

Andrew Solomon


FFTT, the film, gives us intimate and heartening views of people with Down syndrome, autism, of dwarfs, and the family of an 18-year-old boy now imprisoned for life for the murder an 8-year-old boy. And of Andrew Solomon, gay in a family that could not at first accept him. These stories are about the identity of those we meet rather than any illness, disability or sexual disposition. These are stories fundamentally about how love enables families, when coupled with steadfast determination, to overcome their pain and the stigma they may feel; and it is about how individuals can come to accept themselves, to have a good life – a life with dignity. Parents, and other members of a family that experiences a child or loved one who is FFTT, undergo a journey about who they are and who their loved one truly is.

Jason was born with Down Syndrome, now in his 40s. He marveled others when young (he was on 55 episodes of Sesame Street) by showing keen mental skills and developmental advances. But he reached a plateau, which was when he and his parents faced their greatest challenges of acceptance.

<p><em>Jason and his mom</em></p>

Jason and his mom

Participant Media

Jack was a prototypical infant until autism took over his central nervous system at the age of about 2. He became another child - distant, hypermotoric, given to tantrums, non-verbal, and unable to be with other children - effectively taking the boy they had known away from his parents.

<p><em>Jack and his dad</em></p>

Jack and his dad

Participant Media

Trevor, a seemingly normal adolescent, age 16, one morning went to a nearby woods, captured and brutally killed a child half his age. He pled guilty, a guilt that invaded his parents’ soul since they could not help but wonder if they had fostered the creation of a murderer.

And there are the three dwarfs whose lives occupy a good part of the film, and beautifully so. Loini is a young woman, smart but separate as a dwarf who had not spent time among her peers. We join her when she first goes to the annual Little People of America convention, where her life changes. Leah, who provides media and public relations expertise to a variety of advocacy organizations meets Joe, who teaches philosophy at San Diego State; they are both dwarfs, and he requires a wheelchair to get around. They fall in love, and the film carries us along to the birth of their non-dwarf daughter, Hazel.



Participant Media

We also are privileged to enter the life of Andrew Solomon, from when he was a boy to the extraordinary artist and ordinary, if you will in the best sense of the word, husband and father he has become. Born of privilege and highly educated, he was given to poetry and opera from an early age. As he has said, he wanted pink when other boys wanted blue. His parents loved him but could not accept that he was gay. His mother died when Andrew was 27, not having come to the understanding his father later did. Andrew has said that writing FFTT was his way of setting himself free. His candor and courage, as well as his reconciliation with his family and with himself, bring great pathos to the film.

The film was produced by Participant Media (Company with a Conscience http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lloyd-i-sederer-md/company-with-a-conscience_b_854598.html). Founded by Jeff Skoll, an executive producer of this film, Participant has given us an ongoing series of socially meaningful films, including An Inconvenient Truth, The Help, Contagion, Lincoln, A Place At The Table, The Soloist, and Good Night, and Good Luck. They have a special touch.

In FFTT, we have a documentary film that shows how difference can fashion identity, often a defective one that derives from narrow, biased individual and social perspectives - when we overly value the conventional and the commonplace. Through this film, we follow the lives of people who are different, and their families; these drive the documentary’s narrative and capture our hearts. We witness the demands upon families with a truly different child. And we learn that the only successful path for FFTT families, one that can realize transcendence, is taken in incremental steps, with relentless and sustained effort, and with patience (except when unbending institutions demand they be impatient). We see how a family with a quite different child embarks on a journey that is undertaken with love and insists upon keeping hope alive. In other words, the film shines a bright light not just on these different families: It also portrays a more universal vision and offers a map for all of us seeking to discover the wonder of others.


Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health doctor. The opinions offered here are entirely his own.

His next book, The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs, will be published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster) in 2018.


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