“Far from the Tree” screens this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, and defies the idiom “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” The film is based on author Andrew Solomon’s best-selling book, “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.” Solomon quotes Leo Tolstoy from “Anna Karenina”: ”All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In interlaced segments, Solomon talks about his own struggles coming out as gay to his shocked and resistant parents. For him, the film is an investigation into the nature of family through the stories of six individuals. Director Rachel Dretzin narrates how individuals turn out different from what their parents expected.
Meet 44-year-old Jason Kingsley — he was born with Down syndrome. When Jason was young, his parents were told to send him away before an attachment formed. They did no such thing, and Jason developed with considerable skills. As a teenager, he became a TV superstar. He is obsessed with Disney’s “Frozen,” and still believes in Santa Claus. He has a job delivering mail, and lives with two other men with Down syndrome.
Jack Allnutt has autism. As a toddler, he seemed developmentally “normal,” but as he grew he did not talk, and often bit, pinched, and hit his mother. She agonized over how she might have caused Jack’s autism. Individuals with autism vary significantly. Jack learned to communicate with a keyboard. “I’m trying and I am really smart,” he wrote to his parents, opening them up to a new world of communication.
“Is there anybody out there like me?” asks 23-year-old Loini Vivao, a dwarf. She wants to work, drive a car, travel, and have a boyfriend. She attends a Little People of America conference and meets individuals who are just like her. Viewers meet Leah and Joe, a couple from the convention with a particularly interesting story. “It’s surprising to others that I’m not suffering,” Joe, who teaches philosophy, said. The couple gets married and decides to have a child. They wonder if he or she will be a dwarf like them.
One of the most powerful stories is that of Trevor Reese, who killed an 8-year-old when he was a teenager. “I don’t know why I did this,” he said. His horrified parents try to understand how and why, and his siblings vow never to have their own children. Trevor is in prison serving a life sentence, and his family visits often to let him know they still love him.
These families reframe notions of normalcy, cherishing their children for who they are, not what they might have become. Director Dretzin finds a positive, reassuring angle to tell each story, leaving viewers with plenty of food for thought. Dretzin and Henry Louis Gates Jr. will attend the screening, and lead a post-film discussion on Friday, August 10, at 7:30 pm. Dretzin and Gates worked together on the film “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”
For more information or to purchase tickets for the M.V. Film Center, the Capawock Theater, and Strand Theater, visit mvfilmsociety.com.