Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book Far From the Tree is a study of families with children who are different in all sorts of ways from their parents and siblings to degrees that altered and even threatened family functions and relationships. Years after its publication, director Rachel Dretzin collaborated with Solomon to produce this documentary based on his book. At the time of filming, the children were already adults or were well into their teens. The film looks at how the families came to accept these children and how they sought—with varying success—happiness.  

The documentary focuses on five family scenarios: homosexuality (Solomon’s own story); Down syndrome; dwarfism; murder; and autism. Anyone in these families or anyone who knew these families would never invoke the familiar idiom “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” when talking about these children. These apples fell far from the tree, and Solomon builds on that twist to the idiom to characterize the relationship between the affected children and their families as “horizontal.” By extension, Solomon characterizes the relationship of children who are not different from their parents and siblings in any appreciable manner as “vertical.” 

Only one of the original characters from the book appears in the documentary; the other families are newly “cast.” The film captures the lives of these families with all their challenges and successes, and intercuts footage from home videos the families provided. Dretzin also filmed interviews with parents and in some cases their children. The footage and interviews show how families evolved in their acceptance of their children and their situations as best they could. The best was still heartbreak for some, but real happiness was achieved for others. 


Solomon says he took on this project “in some ways…to forgive my parents.” His parents didn’t accept him when he came out, but his father did much later; his mother died before she could. He was interested in other scenarios that are associated with horizontal relationships, which led to the book and film. Thus, the film is not purely objective, but it’s not overly sentimental or cloying either. 

The general thesis Solomon works under is that families in these situations can “choose to be happy.” Indeed in his book he points to the famous opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and asserts that in the case of families with a child at variance from expectations it should be flipped.
I take the anti-Tolstoyan view that the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways. (p. 6)
The documentary shows that families in these circumstances can be happy in many ways. However, it also shows how hard it can be to accept that possibility and to actually get to that state. The mother of the autistic boy says, “It was overwhelming, I didn’t want it.” The father of the son who was guilty of murder reflecting on first seeing him in shackles said, “You know as soon as you see him the worst has happened, and it is not going to be ok.” The families are driven to rise to the challenge—“A mother just can’t stop loving a child,” the mother of the murderer says. This film shows the tough road to finding happiness, and what happiness can look like when a child falls far from the tree.

The idea that happiness is possible casts a critical light on the impulses common among western cultures to reduce the degree of variance from normal anyone might express. But what is normal is a social construct in large measure, i.e., normal is what we say it is. The film shows how some children with horizontal relationships with family members reject the idea that those relationships should be made vertical or “normal”.  One character explains:
Personally, I’m very against someone researching a cure for my type of dwarfism…the same message our whole lives, there’s something wrong with you and we need to fix it, I don’t think I need to be fixed.
Solomon urges that differences among family members may, in fact, be celebrated.  

The film reveals many difficult challenges for the featured families, but not apparent among the challenges are those that stem from ruptured family structures and severe financial pressures. Viewers might conclude that happiness can be achieved in families where horizontal relationships exist, but could wonder if that is the case for families with fractured, acrimonious, or dysfunctional structures, or for families in serious financial straights.

The film covers the same scenarios and the same issues as the book, although the book considers six additional scenarios, namely, transgender, prodigy, schizophrenia, disability, deafness, and rape. In making a case for the documentary, especially to those who had read the book, Solomon explains on his website that
While the book has three hundred families and the movie has six, those six convey what I intended and discovered and so much more: about love; about the complexity of parenting; about identity; about grace; about faith; about optimism; about how people come to be grateful for lives they would have done anything to avoid.
He goes further to say that “a book recounts what has happened while a documentary pursues what is happening.” Nevertheless, the film did not fall far from the book.


This annotation was based on a screening of the film at the IFC Center in New York City on July 20, 2018, and was informed in part by a talk back session with Rachel Dretzin (director), Andrew Solomon (author of book), and some members of featured families.




Ark Media

Running Time (in minutes)

93 minutes

Based on

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon