The three young ladies referenced in the title of "Daddy's Little Girls" don't get much screen time, as writer-director Tyler Perry's story is really all about daddy, a hardworking blue-collar mechanic who falls in love with his lawyer while fighting for custody of his daughters.

The three young ladies referenced in the title of “Daddy’s Little Girls” don’t get much screen time, as writer-director Tyler Perry’s story is really all about daddy, a hardworking blue-collar mechanic who falls in love with his lawyer while fighting for custody of his daughters. But their limited presence isn’t nearly as conspicuous as Perry’s total absence, and the real question here is whether fans will turn out to watch a film in which the Madea comic remains strictly behind the camera. On its merits, pic is certainly solid enough to match Lionsgate’s first two Perry projects commercially.

That’s because Perry gets better at directing every time he tries. With bigscreen debut “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” most critics didn’t know quite what to make of his unique blend of outrageous comedy, sentimental melodrama and social commentary, but subsequent projects have found Perry holding fast to his philosophy that life itself follows those same manic mood changes — laughter one minute, tears the next. And the professional sheen of “Daddy’s Little Girls,” the first feature to shoot in Perry’s new Atlanta studios, proves “Diary’s” awkward pacing and daytime TV staging were beginner steps toward a more polished product.

Once again, life seems to stack the hurdles especially high for characters with saintlike qualities, and Monty (Idris Elba) is the kind of everyday martyr, like all of Perry’s heroes, who can’t seem to get a break. He’s been raising his daughters all their lives, and even his mother-in-law agrees he’s a better parent than his ex-wife Jennifer (Tasha Smith). But the courts don’t see it that way, awarding custody to the mother, who moves them in with her drug-dealer boyfriend, promptly instructing 12-year-old Sierra (Sierra McClain), “It’s time for you to start your own hustle.”

Perry’s pics deal in polar characterizations, where the good guys are pure of heart and the villains might as well have cloven hooves, then mix things up with ambiguities. In this case, it’s a rape conviction in Monty’s past — a cheap narrative trick. Perry clearly doesn’t intend for auds to lose sympathy with Monty, but needs an artificial device to stall the relationship he’s developing with his lawyer Julia (Gabrielle Union).

Chockfull of cathartic moments, Perry ‘s storytelling is best when it defies convention. Like the black man’s Frank Capra, Perry tells stories in which every conflict is a test of faith and every victory a testament to the American underdog. Instead of following the proven formulas of screenwriting books, he earnestly shepherds his own messy structure. A long digression in church is not just unsurprising but expected; if the pic were working as well as intended, the climax really would reflect the sermon, about feeling faint just before God delivers his followers from hardship.

Pic’s main message echoes the one that motivated Will Smith’s character in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” As Monty puts it, “I know the world’ll have you thinking that brothers don’t look after their kids.” Perry aims to show the other side, creating characters who defy stereotypes side-by-side with the same bangers and drug dealers African-American actors have been playing for decades.

But it’s still progress, both for Perry as a filmmaker and audiences in general, that his stories continue to be told with ever more professional craft.

Daddy's Little Girls

Production

A Lionsgate release of a Lionsgate and Tyler Perry Studios presentation of a Tyler Perry Studios/Reuben Cannon Prods./Lionsgate production. Produced by Perry, Cannon. Executive producer, Michael Paseornek. Co-producers, Roger M. Bobb, D. Scott Lumpkin. Directed, written by Tyler Perry.

Crew

Camera (color), Toyomichi Kurita; editor, Maysie Hoy; music, Brian McKnight; music supervisor, Joel C. High; production designer, Ina Mayhew; set decorator, C. Lance Totten; costume designer, Keith G. Lewis; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Jim Hawkins; sound designers, Jonathan Miller, Jay Nierenberg; assistant director, Roger M. Bobb; casting, Kim Williams. Reviewed at Lionsgate screening room, Santa Monica, Feb. 14, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Julia - Gabrielle Union Monty - Idris Elba Willie - Louis Gossett Jr. Jennifer - Tasha Smith Maya - Malinda Williams Joseph - Gary Sturgis
With: Tracee Ellis Ross, Terri J. Vaughn, Sierra McClain, China McClain, Lauryn McClain, Juanita Jennings, Craig Robinson.

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