It takes a beat or so to register the audacity of the title Far From the Tree, a phrase that’s normally presented in a negative context, as in “One look at Eric and Don Jr. and you know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (Nor do the worms, apparently.) Andrew Solomon’s stupendous 2012 tome and Rachel Dretzin’s boundlessly empathetic documentary (co-produced by Solomon) home in on the exceptions: children whose very existence leaves their parents wondering what happened between conception and birth. Solomon began his investigation as a way to reconcile himself to his own past, specifically his parents’ bafflement and lack of acceptance when he turned out to be gay. What, he wondered, of so-called “normal” parents and children with Down syndrome, autism, or dwarfism? How do those parents adjust? And how can those children create a home in the world so far from home base?
The outline of the book is loose, but section-by-section Solomon immerses himself so deeply in each of his subjects’ histories that he seems to be living through their pasts alongside them. (It takes a while to reorient ourselves when a new chapter begins — we’ve adjusted our perspectives, we want to stay where we are.) I think the movie makes a rhetorical mistake by dispensing with Solomon as an interviewer, confining him to interstitial segments in which he tells his own story. Inspiring as his life has been (his father, the source of so much angst, recognizes the mountains his son has had to climb in a wedding toast), I wanted to see Solomon interact with his subjects, to watch him ask and answer questions in his amusingly plummy voice.
On the other hand, Dretzin might have thought — and might have been right in thinking — that Solomon’s formidable presence would keep us from connecting as directly with the other people onscreen. This is not, in the end, his story but a tapestry with disparate threads — some complementary, some very much not. It’s a film about Jason Kingsley (who has Down syndrome); Jack Allnut (autism); the “little people” Loini Vivao and married couple Leah Smith and Joseph Stramando; and the family of Trevor Reese, who at age 16 inexplicably murdered an 8-year-old boy. The Reeses contacted Solomon after reading Far From the Tree — they felt a powerful connection to families of children born with autism or Down syndrome.
How momentous it feels to see these children, as well as videos described in the book. The most powerful are those of Jack Allnut, who seemed “normal” at birth until his parents, Amy and Bob, noticed that he never looked at people and picked up no words and only writhed and screamed and hit — to the point where Amy ended up blaming herself, although for what neither she or we can imagine. After years of different therapies (music, hyperbaric oxygen, etc.) we see Jack’s first encounter with the therapist whose monotonous patience, day after day, resulted in his learning to type — and produced a sort of message in a bottle from a boy on an island way out at sea: “I’m trying and I am really smart.” Amy says it was like meeting her son for the first time. “My God,” she thought. “He’s in there.” But as marvelous as it is to see the liberation of Jack’s mind from his body, the trajectory of Jason Kingsley is relatively downbeat — from being an articulate, energetic spokesperson for kids with Down syndrome to a 40-year-old with a fanatical insistence on rewatching Disney’s Frozen, which he can’t quite grasp is fiction.
The “little people” segment — which opens at a Little People of America convention — touches on one of Solomon’s most persistent and knotty themes. Much of his book focuses on advocates who refuse to accept the idea that theirs is a “disability” and who rail against the prospect of prenatal gene therapies that would eliminate their syndromes or lessen their numbers.
Dretzin doesn’t have the hours to explore the issue — which touches on the question of whether parents will someday be able to “correct” for, say, homosexuality in the womb. But watching Stramondo, an assistant professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, you wonder how such a prickly, funny, insistently philosophical voice could have come from someone who didn’t have so many limitations on his body. (I am aware that my language is redolent of prejudice: “limitations,” “disabilities,” “confined to a wheelchair.”) What’s far from the tree widens the range of human experience — things in heaven and earth that are not dreamed of in our philosophies, but perhaps in Stramondo’s.
The Reese family section is an outlier, and allusive rather than revelatory. (Many books have been written on the definition and origins of psychopathy and not gotten to the bottom of it.) What’s wrenching is to watch this family sit and stare and struggle to come to terms with something no one can fully understand — to the point where Trevor’s siblings say they won’t have kids themselves. Because what if there’s something in their genes? And though Trevor fell far from the tree, they talk to him on the phone from prison and tell them they love him, as they would any child with a disability.
It’s quite a mix: Far From the Tree throws so much at you that you’ll want to pick up the book and read (or reread) it. You might be surprised that one of Solomon’s subjects is the accomplished composer Nico Muhly, in the section on prodigies. Muhly (along with Yo La Tengo) composed the movie’s music, which, like the film and book, doesn’t settle for easy harmonies.
Update: This post originally identified composer Nico Mulhy as “on the spectrum,” which is untrue. Andrew Solomon does allude to individuals with brilliance in specific areas who used to be called “Aspergian,” but the section in which Muhly appears is on “prodigies.” Muhly is identified as having, as a child, “OCD with strong depressive undercurrents,” but it’s likely that puts him in the mainstream of composers with his kind of precocity and genius. I fervently apologize to him for the mischaracterization.