A movie hero is never just “normal,” but someone who’s either somehow exceptional or at least an everyday Joe in exceptional circumstances. Yet in real life, an “exceptional” child is often bad news. There’s illness, biology, behavior, and inclinations not covered in most parenting books, supported in most classrooms, or tolerated in most playgrounds or social circles. So that our children can live their best selves, we tend to try to bend them to the norm, which can be exhausting, heartbreaking, and sometimes futile.
In his 2012 book, Far From the Tree, upon which director Rachel Dretzin’s thorough documentary is based, writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon moved from unpacking his mother’s rejection of his homosexuality — which led him to adopt a heterosexual life for years — to exploring how many families confront having children who are born with conditions or do things that most children aren’t or don’t.
His exhaustive work, interviewing some three hundred families, comes to life in Dretzin’s film, which features just six. It’s a painstaking inspection of parenthood, which is fraught even in less formidable circumstances than what these families face, and often harrowing. But it’s also a contemplation of what it means to be human and, ultimately, optimistic. “You know, Tolstoy said, ‘All happy families are the same, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ and I used to think that might be true,” Solomon says. “But actually I think a lot of unhappiness is quite similar, and that what’s remarkable is all of the different ways people find to be happy.”
Far From the Tree
Directed by Rachel Dretzin
Opens July 20, IFC Center
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 18, 2018