“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.’ ” That’s one of the main conclusions author Andrew Solomon took away from the research he did while writing his award-winning 2012 nonfiction book “Far from the Tree.” And if that summation of parent-child relationships seems a bit rosy – some parents, in fact, do say that, and do worse – Solomon’s generosity of spirit isn’t simplistic or unearned.
In Rachel Dretzin’s new documentary based on Solomon’s book – screening this weekend at PMA Films – we see the lengths to which Solomon traveled to eventually come to his conclusion. And it’s a long way. Himself the son of parents whose love and acceptance of the young Solomon’s eccentricities (“I was a weirdo,” the author concedes) didn’t extend to his homosexuality, Solomon says he wrote his book to explore “how families go about dealing with children that are very different from them.”
Solomon, whose reminiscences of his own journey toward acceptance (of himself and his parents) frame the film version of “Far from the Tree,” claims he wanted to look beyond his own particular family situation to “investigate the very nature of family itself” by meeting families whose children emerged into the world in defiance of parents’ expectations and hopes of “normalcy.” And he did that. His book is an extensive 1,000-page compendium of such stories, only one of which makes it into Dretzin’s briskly thought-provoking and intermittently uplifting film. For the rest of the film’s 93 minutes, Solomon’s ruminations on his own life and his subjects’ share time with a quintet of others’ stories.
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There’s Jason (the only holdover from Solomon’s book), who was born with Down syndrome and whose loving parents defiantly brushed away conventional wisdom and raised him in a warmly aspirational environment. Something of a poster child for the awareness and acceptance of people with his condition as a youth (he even appeared alongside Kermit, counting to 10 in Spanish on “Sesame Street”), Jason is shown as a capable adult, going with his mom to museums, holding down a job and forming a tight bond (“a family of friends,” he describes it touchingly) with the two other residents of an assisted-living house. The film presents Jason’s life in almost idyllic terms at first, before reasserting that life resists neat, uplifting narratives. Faced with the fact that Jason’s very real disability eventually meant letting go of her own preconceived notions of what her son could accomplish, Jason’s mother, with devastating honesty, admits, “It was letting go of a dream when I realized that Jason was going to be who he is.”
When people choose to have children, their expectations – as well-intentioned as they may be – are as often harmful as beneficial to the actual children they have. That’s brought home in several other of the film’s stories. Loina is a 23-year-old woman with dwarfism, whose doting mother’s overprotectiveness and financial circumstances have left her isolated, especially from others like her. A trip to the annual Little People of America convention is a heart-swelling experience for her and for viewers, as the young woman opens up and finds the first friend like her that she’s ever had.
Jack has profound autism, is nonverbal and is occasionally violent. His dedicated parents’ determination to “fix” him has the boy undergoing every experimental treatment available, to no avail. “Don’t film this,” we see his harried mother snap during one home movie as she wrestles the intransigent Jack. When a special keyboard finally reveals that Jack’s mind has been operating feverishly inside his uncooperative body all this time, his tearful mother expresses the mixed joy and guilt of someone who’d admitted, “It was not a normal mother-son relationship. It was overwhelming. I didn’t want it.”
If Dretzin’s affecting film has a flaw, it’s lack of focus. The five stories, including that of a couple with dwarfism trying to have a child and a family whose teenage son committed a horrific crime, are all compelling. So much so, in fact, that each feels short-changed by the format. Perhaps it’s a relief that so much emotional weight is delivered in a relatively short film, but the truncated exploration of these people’s lives calls for five separate features. For example, Leah and Joe, the married couple, are as loving and evenly matched partners as you’re likely to see on a movie screen this year, and their love story is wrapped around one of the film’s most challenging questions. At the same conference with Loina (who they never meet in the film), the pair address recent scientific discoveries hinting at a possible “cure” for dwarfism. Leah’s defiant assertion that “I don’t need to be fixed” strikes deeper at the heart of the film’s examination of difference than its brief screen time suggests.
In the end, the film revisits each subject’s story for a clear-eyed but inspirational wrap-up that underscores Solomon’s pronouncement that “you could accept or even celebrate your brokenness.” That question – presumably addressed more fully in Solomon’s massive book – is merely touched on in the film of “Far from the Tree,” especially as the director’s choice to connect such disparate people’s circumstances is hazy and problematic. But it’s hard to imagine anyone not being touched by the film, even as each subject’s lifse is shown to resist the easy uplift movies traditionally choose to end on.
“Far From the Tree” screens at PMA Films at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8, $6 for museum members and students with ID. For more information, go to portlandmuseum.org.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Wednesday, Sept.5 : “Skate Kitchen.” The first narrative film from “The Wolfpack” director Crystal Moselle saw the filmmaker befriending an all-girl NYC skateboarding crew to craft this acclaimed new film about a rebellious young girl finding friends – and trouble – on wheels.
Maine Public Television
Thursday and Friday: “In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland.” MPBN is showing this rousing musical documentary from Maine filmmaker Huey about piano legend McPartland. It screens Thursday night at 10 and Friday morning at 11.