Daughters is Natalie Rae and Angela Patton’s odyssey documenting Patton’s program that empowers girls of incarcerated men yields insight through the subjects themselves — carefree tweens enjoying their chance to just be kids.
Aubrey, Santana, Raziah and Ja’Ana open up on camera about cherishing lifelong connections to jailed fathers some rarely visit. Their reflections on maintaining hope with imperfect parental bonds defy assumptions around what families touched by long-term sentences or flawed rehabilitation systems need most. Moments defending and questioning their dads in the same breath showcase conflicting loyalties beyond most youths’ years.
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The lens of Daughters hands the mic to the girls at its center. Rather than a parade of expositional interviews, we witness the girls of varying ages and their suppression of anger over feeling deprived of fatherly support. Their vulnerability and confusion rings out through self-aware proclamations far beyond childhood. The emotional aftermath also means some assuming parental mind-sets before their time; a subtle form of parentification emerges.
During Fatherhood counseling meetings preceding a culminating dance, the film highlights systemic challenges. Chad, a Fatherhood life coach, schools the participating men that if people don’t define themselves, statistics will. His insight indicts prejudices that entomb all marginalized groups until they shake off societal constraints and claim identity.
Meanwhile, restrictive prison visitation policies increasingly bar in-person contact. For some girls, a once-annual dance with their visiting father is their sole cherished physical connection. According to the film, prisons have been doing away with in-person visits since 2014. They are usually given two video visits, which they have to pay for. America’s prison system increasingly warehouses the incarcerated more than reforms them. Between draconian sentences, chronic overcrowding and understaffing, conditions degrade human dignity rather than encourage rehabilitation. Vocational development, counseling and education remain limited inside prisons rather than meaningful priorities.
Unprepared to reintegrate, many formerly incarcerated have little choice but to reoffend out of necessity, thus continuing the cycle of keeping these fathers out of the home. Without first acknowledging the basic humanity in prisoners, budgeting for programs focused on ownership and accountability for harmful behaviors, the system punishes instead of promoting individual change. Recidivism cycles thus become self-fulfilling prophecies.
While not shying from the isolation and self-protection learned when authorities disrupt family units, Daughters insists on forging community around everyone. Support systems defending and nurturing kids impacted by imprisonment model the “village” concept. At the story’s close, fateful updates on certain fathers and daughters reinforce carceral policy’s reach across generations if unaddressed. Their circumstances’ severity comes into view once removed from the moments of father-daughter joy.
By bookending buoyant bonding and peak life moments with unfiltered peeks into the girls’ formative struggles, Rae and Patton underscore how even periodic bursts of bliss hold radical power for reshaping worldviews. Daily trauma absorbed before returning home reiterates why continual cultural and sociopolitical efforts must spread this spark so no child feels forgotten.
Festival (Section): Sundance (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Directors: Natalie Rae and Angela Patton
Running time: 1 hr 47 min
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