Director Rachel Dretzin’s documentary Far from the Tree, based on Andrew Solomon’s New York Times bestselling nonfiction book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, depicts several families in which perceptions of normality have divided parents from their children. That’s either because a child turned out to have Down syndrome or severe autism—or because he or she is gay, a little person, or even a murderer.
Throughout, Dretzin doesn’t consider what seems most interesting about the concept of normality: its variability. What’s normal today may have been considered abnormal not that long ago. The film is content to superficially group stories together without caring to suggest connections between them beyond the basic fact that one child in each home has gone awry. One of these connections could have been the idea that any child is bound to be met with disappointment by virtue of simply being born, at which point a child becomes an actual subject, not just an object of the parents’ idealization.
The recognition of this fact would have allowed Far from the Tree to make room for the idea of normality as a matter of degree, not kind: a status we’re all courting (by forming families and having kids, most notably) and inevitably falling short (fantasy is always rosier than reality). The film never probes beyond the idea of children as problems cracking the family portrait. What role, for one, did the parents play in producing these children?
The very act of having kids and demanding perfect conformity from them is never questioned by the documentary. Neither is the way in which children who don’t flawlessly perform normality apparently become objects to be mourned. One mother, of a son who slit the throat of an eight-year-old child when he was 16, may take his collect phone calls from prison but pretends he doesn’t exist whenever she meets new people. Elsewhere, the parents of a severely autistic boy seem more invested in weeping than soul-searching.
Particularly flat is the recurring portrait of Solomon himself, who weaves in and out to lament, and in the most funereal of voices, that his parents grieved his own homosexuality. What the film ultimately doesn’t understand is that normality, not unlike mourning, is a question of public performance. Dretzin, perhaps in loyalty to the source material, isn’t willing to explore normality in its status as a look, a prescription, a burden, an unreasonable demand, an expensive enterprise, or an impossible project. Had she been willing to do so, then her film might have offered a much-needed refusal of the normality/abnormality binary as the arbiter of a child’s inherent worth.