Reviews: May/June 2019

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Far from the Tree
Based on the book by Andrew Solomon ’85
Directed by Rachel Dretzin ’87
Sundance Selects, $14.99
Reviewed by Mark Blankenship ’05MFA

Critic and reporter Mark Blankenship ’05MFA is the director of integrated content at AKA, an arts marketing agency in NYC.

I watched the documentary Far from the Tree with cautious curiosity, because, years ago, when I finished the book on which it’s based, I could almost feel it pulsing in my hands.

In the original work, Andrew Solomon writes about parents whose children are radically different from them, thanks to genetic and medical conditions, gender and sexual identities, or youthful slides into crime. His deeper subject, though, is how the parents traverse the divide, loving their kids with what he calls “the terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility.” He writes with such articulate empathy that the book seems to have its own beating  heart. At over 700 small-print pages, it also has the heft of an epic. It’s surprising then that the documentary is only 90 minutes long. Can Solomon’s capacious masterwork be honored by such a short movie?

In many ways, yes. Director Rachel Dretzin makes the task manageable by focusing on just a few of the family types that Solomon describes, which gives them all space to be known. For instance, by the time a young woman with dwarfism attends a Little People of America conference for the first time, we’re so vividly aware of her loneliness that we know what it means for her to make friends and cut loose at a dance.

Dretzin also honors Solomon’s refusal to sentimentalize. Every family is shown to have hardships at least as significant as their successes, and in the case of the parents whose teenage son murdered a child, the successes arguably become moot. But the love is there, obvious and stubborn.

Things get airier in the final scenes, when Dretzin veers toward a feel-good conclusion that includes Solomon and his own unconventional family. This plays like a Hollywood cheat, but I’ll admit it made me cry anyway.

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