Andrew Solomon’s documentary “Far From the Tree” to screen at Aspen Ideas Festival | AspenTimes.com

Andrew Solomon’s documentary “Far From the Tree” to screen at Aspen Ideas Festival

Author Andrew Solomon has produced a documentary adapted from his book "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity."

Andrew Solomon has spent years studying parents, love and acceptance — asking a big question: What, in a child, should be changed? And what should be celebrated?

In the new documentary "Far From the Tree" — based on Solomon's best-selling and award-winning 2012 book of the same name — he intimately profiles parents who have children who are different from them, and he follows their journeys toward acceptance.

Viewers meet parents of children with autism, with Down syndrome, dwarfism and the family of a boy who committed a violent crime.

"Some things clearly need to be changed and some things clearly need to be celebrated, but a lot of things fall in a grey middle ground," Solomon, who will give an early screening of the film Friday in Aspen, said in an interview this week at a home in Starwood. "This film is about how you sort through that middle ground."

Changing a child, Solomon noted, is an essential responsibility of parenthood: You change a child by educating them, teaching them morality and manners. Not to do so is neglect. But beyond that, trying to change your kids gets murky.

Solomon's inquiry into parenting unique children began with questions about his own upbringing. "Far From the Tree" was inspired by Solomon's parents' struggle with his homosexuality, particularly his mother's rejection of his identity.

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"I wanted to understand my parents," he explains in the film.

In his lifetime, Solomon notes, he's seen society's view of homosexuality evolve relatively rapidly from an illness to an identity. What other identities are being misdiagnosed today? Who else is being disenfranchised?

These questions led him into a wide realm of mothers and fathers and children, and how parents respond to differences. Writing the book also led him and his husband to decide to have their own children.

The documentary begins with Jason, who was born with Down syndrome. Doctors in the 1970s had recommended institutionalizing him, but his mother and father rejected that idea and instead educated him as they would any other child. He responded with an aptitude that outstretched expectations and made him a bit of a celebrity, landing on "Sesame Street" and in a Barbara Walters interview showing off his intellectual capabilities.

"I think slowly, but I'm smart in my own way," he says in the film.

The documentary follows him into adulthood and examines the ways in which he can and cannot overcome his disability.

"Certain limitations are just built in," his mother, Emily Kingsley, who is in Aspen for Friday's screening, says in the film.

"Far From the Tree" also profiles Jack, who is nonverbal and autistic. His mother and father lay bare their desperate attempts to change him and the litany of experimental treatments they tried through his young life. A rapid-speech therapist provides a breakthrough, at age 13, allowing Jack to communicate using a speech board.

"I'm trying," he tells his parents. "I'm really smart."

His mother describes it as "like meeting him for the first time." The documentary stays with Jack into high school, where he becomes a straight-A student.

The film also follows a young woman with dwarfism to a Little People of America convention, where she finds community for the first time, and profiles two little people planning to have a child.

And it profiles the family of a Louisiana boy who commits murder and is sent to prison for life, examining how parents reckon with the aftermath and how they continue to love their son.

"Far From the Tree" will screen Friday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival's Spotlight Health conference. The film is due for a theatrical release July 20 with an on-demand release a week later.

Published to wide acclaim in 2012, Solomon's book won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction. A 900-plus-page deep dive, it covered some 300 families. For the documentary version of "Far From the Tree," Solomon and director Rachel Dretzin narrowed their subjects down to seven families.

"The point was to find people who were willing to be absolutely honest and open," Solomon said.

He wanted to harness the intimacy and transparency of cinema to expand the reach of his book.

"I was interested in exploring what could be expressed in that medium to reach an audience beyond the audience reached by the book, but also to be a separate and different artistic undertaking," Solomon said.

The visual medium, he believes, is a powerful way to allow viewers to see different kinds of people as equals.

"I can tell you these are remarkable people over and over again and I can describe what I think makes them remarkable," he said. "But when you see them tangibly in front of you, their remarkableness becomes much harder to refute."

And Solomon does not understate the basic value of putting people on screen who are rarely seen in films.

"These differences and disabilities are still very under-represented in the visuals of our culture," he said. "Showing images of them is a step toward recognizing what people look like, sound like."

The film will naturally draw interest from the communities it depicts. But Solomon is hopeful it will reach a wider audience. Anyone who is a parent, or plans to be, has considered the complexities the film grapples with, he noted.

"The basic argument of it — here is what it is like to have a child who is essentially different — is an argument that can be made in very broad terms and should be accessible to anyone," Solomon said.

And it is, Solomon recognizes, an inherently political film. The America of 2018 seems a very different and less compassionate place than the America into which Solomon's book was released six years ago. Back then, the movement toward celebrating difference and multiculturalism appeared to have more momentum.

"We are living in a moment when there has been a crisis in empathy," Solomon said.

The Trump administration has been demoralizing to Solomon and the movement that "Far From the Tree" champions.

"I was hopeful, and then we got to the new administration," he said. "I've lost a lot of the hope I had. But I think of what Martin Luther King said, that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.' In general we are becoming a more open and accepting society, but it's not a smooth easy course. … The idea of accepting these people with differences and disabilities as equal members of our society is an ongoing battle and, of course, there can be no rest."

Solomon's long inquiry into family will continue beyond this documentary. He has more questions to explore, he said. He is now at work on an audio series, which will later become a book, about the expanding definition of family. He is profiling single-parent families, gay families, multi-parent families, polyamorous families and other non-traditional structures that have become more prevalent in recent years.

He noted that there are nine words in English for family relationships — mother, father, sister, brother, etc. — and we need new words to meet the expanding idea of family.

"That's an inadequate vocabulary for talking about human relationships," he said. "It's far more complex. That's the next big job."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘Far From the Tree”

Where: Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight Health, Paepcke Auditorium

When: Friday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $12

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com

More info: The screening with be followed by a discussion moderated by Jackie Judd with author/producer Andrew Solomon and Emily Kingsley, who is a parent featured in the film; http://www.aspenideas.org

ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL FILM LINEUP

FRIDAY, JUNE 22

“Far From the Tree”

SATURDAY, JUNE 23

“The Tale”

SUNDAY, JUNE 24

“Anote”s Ark”

MONDAY, JUNE 25

“306 Hollywood”

TUESDAY, JUNE 26

“Miseducation of Cameron Post”

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27

“The Sentence”

THURSDAY, JUNE 28

“Burden”

FRIDAY, JUNE 29

“Of Fathers & Sons”

Screenings all begin at 7:30 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium. Tickets are $12, available at the Wheeler Opera House box office and aspenshowtix.com