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Movie review: Fascinating ‘Far From the Tree’ gets at the heart of parent-child relationships

"FAR FROM THE TREE" — 3 stars — Amy Allnut, Jack Allnut, Harry Burdick, Jason Kingsley, Andrew Solomon; not rated; Broadway

Rachel Dretzin’s thoughtful documentary “Far From the Tree” is a fascinating and sobering look at what happens to the relationship between parents and their children when the little ones come with unexpected challenges.

Based on Andrew Solomon’s book, “Far From the Tree” works its way through a series of intimate and thorough profiles that cover a variety of mostly genetic-related issues.

We first meet Jason, a man in his early 40s with Down syndrome. Through interviews, file footage and historical images, we learn how Jason gained a degree of celebrity as a youngster, as his parents held him up as an example of what a child with Down syndrome could do. But Jason’s adult life has forced his parents to accept the reality of his limitations.

Jason’s profile leads us to Jack, who was diagnosed with autism as a young boy and endured several years of frustration and testing before his parents found a treatment that unlocked his intelligent mind.

Joe Stramondo and Leah Smith in Rachel Dretzin’s “Far From the Tree.”
Joe Stramondo and Leah Smith in Rachel Dretzin’s “Far From the Tree.”
Sundance Selects

We get only a brief introduction to Lioni, a 23-year-old woman whose stunted growth has kept her smaller than many grade-school children. The documentary then moves on to Leah and Joe, a married couple with dwarfism who remain determined to have a child and lead successful lives.

In between each vignette, elements of Solomon’s own story tie the documentary together. Solomon, who is gay, was inspired to investigate the lives of people like Jason and Jack after dealing with a strained relationship with his own parents.

Each profile is moving and thoughtful, but none seem to resonate more than “Far From the Tree’s” final subject — a convicted teenage murderer named Trevor. The amount of screen time exploring the parent-child relationship varies between each profile, but in this case, our time is almost exclusively spent with Trevor’s family, who has struggled to recover — even having to move out of state — after their son was convicted of killing an 8-year-old boy.

Trevor’s profile is unique among the film’s subjects: He’s the only one we don’t hear from directly. But each vignette is compelling, and Solomon explains that throughout 10 years of investigating his subjects, he's come to learn he was “investigating the very nature of family itself.”

Solomon’s conclusions are bound to inspire discussion, and audiences will likely differ on certain issues — such as when “Far From the Tree” explores the controversy over potential treatment for dwarfism.

Jack Allnutt and Bob Allnutt in Rachel Dretzin’s “Far From the Tree.”
Jack Allnutt and Bob Allnutt in Rachel Dretzin’s “Far From the Tree.”
Sundance Selects

But regardless of your final take on its particulars, “Far From the Tree” is a valuable and fascinating voice for issues that get at the heart of the relationship between parents and children, and how powers beyond our control can strain even the strongest bonds of affection.

Content advisory: “Far From the Tree” is not rated, but might land in PG-13 territory for discussions of upsetting subject matter (such as Trevor’s crime), as well as some quick flashes of adult magazines as Solomon describes his experience with sexual therapy.