In “Daughters,” a group of men gathers in a sunny, brightly hued prison meeting room. Each man wears an orange jumpsuit and has signed on for a 10-week course about fatherhood with life coach Chad Morris in directors Natalie Rae and Angela Patton’s entrancing documentary, debuting at the Sundance Film Festival. The body language in the room is instructive, not least because it will change over time. Show-me postures will give way to leaning in. Crickets become questions and confessions as the day nears when the men will attend a dance and luncheon in the repurposed prison gymnasium, reunited with the daughters from whom they’ve been separated.
As interesting as the goings-on in that prison room will be, the stars of “Daughters” are the titular girls: Aubrey Smith, 5, Santana Stewart, 10, Ja’Ana Crudup, 11, and Raziah Lewis, 15. “One thing I know from working over a decade with girls is they know what they need,” says Patton in voiceover at the film’s outset. She is the founder of Girls for Change, the organization that launched its Date with Dad program 12 years earlier. “Daughters” was shot in the first year the dance was held in Washington, D.C.
The film is rife with visually lyrical moments that connect viewers with the young ones’ sorrows, fears, insights and hopes. In the hands of the directors, cinematographer Michael Cambio Fernandez and editors Troy Lewis and Adelina Bichis, the documentary exercises the kind of compassionate attention that leaves room for the girls to be girls: wee Aubrey, with her missing front teeth and searching eyes, to count all manner of numbers. “I know all my 10 times tables,” she says with slightly breathless pride. But the toughest arithmetic is that which she uses to grasp the seven years before her father, Keith Sweptson, is released from prison. “First it was nine years, then the police took away two and it was seven,” she explains.
Sitting in a car and pouting with purpose, Santana expresses her anger at her father, Mark Grimes. In the fatherhood circle, Mark talks about how young he and her mother Diamond were when she was born. (He was 16; she was 14.) Their oldest child often comes across as wiser and more mature than her mother. When we meet Ja’Ana Crudup, she is dancing with friends, all girls, at an outdoor party in the parking lot of a housing complex. Mom Unita chaperones the exuberant gathering. In a session at the prison, her father Frank Walker talks with frustration about not being able to speak with his daughter. Mothers can act as “gatekeepers,” is the takeaway.
“I would love to see my father, but my mother doesn’t like me to go to jail and see my father behind bars,” Ja’Ana says. While mothers take a backseat in the film, they have voices. LaShawn Smith talks about the night the police descended on the apartment to arrest Keith, as Aubrey slept in another room. Diamond relates how costly staying connected via phone and video is. And Unita shares her own stance on the matter of Ja’Ana and Frank being in touch. It wasn’t until he was in prison, she recounts, that he expressed an interest in spending time with his daughter.
In introducing the girls from youngest to oldest, “Daughters” makes the gentle point that as the girls age, a father’s absence can create greater uncertainty and unease in the world. Teenager Raziah wipes away tears as she talks about the milestones her father Alonzo has missed, and will continue to miss. Her mother Sherita voices fears that her daughter might hurt herself. By juxtaposing images between the girls and their fathers, the filmmakers suture wounds even as they make the familial and cultural scars apparent. A shot of Aubrey looking out the window is intercut with a close-up of Keith, a much smaller window casting wan daylight in his cell. Her window has blinds, his bars.
When the Date with Dad dance comes shortly after the film’s midpoint, it does not disappoint. Five weeks into the session, the fathers were measured for their suits. Now they sit, nervous and oh-so- handsome, in a corridor of waxed linoleum and white concrete block corridors. The girls arrive, a procession of sequined and sparkly dresses and straightened, braided, coiffed tresses. Even so, worry floats in the room: Will I recognize my daddy? Will my daughter recognize me? Santana, whose game face is a thing of beauty and armor, makes her way toward the men. When she sees Mark, her shout of “Daddy!” is as joyous as it is shattering.
With mindful intimacy, the documentary nudges us to consider its gaze. It shoots from a low height to reflect Aubrey’s vantage. It stands back in admiration of a solo dance that Santana performs in a sodium lamp-lit parking lot. Her fierce movements celebrate the stout strength she’s shown since we first met her. In voiceover, she recounts how she handles her anger with a dance that epitomizes her approach: “Body. Space. Energy. Time.” Time is crucial in “Daughters”: doing it, living its consequences, pondering its meaning. From the opening — a black-and-white montage that floats on Kelsey Lu’s plaintive piano score — “Daughters” shares striking DNA with another Sundance-launched doc, Garrett Bradley’s “Time.” Like that gem, this quietly consequential film makes clear the weight of mass incarceration on families.
“Daddy made some bad decision,” Keith tells Aubrey at one point. “It’s not your fault that Daddy went away.” The film is mum about what those mistakes might have been. (That’s what search engines are for.) At first, this omission seems wrongheaded. What if some of these fathers robbed other children of theirs? It’s a legitimate quandary, but one the filmmakers thoughtfully table, instead remaining bound to Aubrey, Santana, Ja’Ana and Raziah. The film is their story and their keepsake.
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