America’s absentee-father epidemic is addressed through the prism of four individual stories in “Daddy Don’t Go,” director/producer Emily Abt’s deft documentary about a quartet of disadvantaged New York single dads struggling to provide for their kids. A depiction of not only paternal devotion and sacrifice, but also the difficulty of breaking cycles of personal and parental neglect and trauma, this stirring film derives much of its power from its non-judgmental, warts-and-all perspective on its subjects. Its lack of outlandish flash and controversial gimmicks will likely limit its theatrical prospects, but this nuanced and heartrending work should prove extremely attractive to prominent cable outlets.
Filmed over the course of two years, and funded in part through Kickstarter, Abt’s film fixates its gaze on four dads in various states of disarray. Bronx native Nelson, 26, is an unemployed former member of the Latin Kings gang who has a child with his girlfriend, Rebecca, and has also assumed fatherly duties for her other two kids. Omar, 34, is a North Bronx resident whose severe learning disabilities seem to have been passed down to the oldest of his three children, as well as stymied his stabs at procuring consistent work. Ex-con Roy, 26, now lives with his parents in Long Island, where he raises his son without the aid of the boy’s off-the-rails mother. And Alex, 26, has taken on the role of sole guardian of his 2-year-old son, Alex Jr., even though — while trying to pass an automotive-training class he hopes will lead to a steady income — he’s awaiting trial for a prior assault that could put him away for years.
These individuals are bonded by their unflagging love for their children, as well as a willingness to do whatever it takes to care for them — and, in the case of Omar and Alex, to make sure they don’t lose them to child services, which closely monitors their every parenting move. By smoothly cross-cutting among their day-to-day experiences, “Daddy Don’t Go” naturally allows other similarities between these men to emerge: failure to complete high school; drug use and/or dealing; run-ins with the law; incarceration; and girlfriends more consumed with their own problems (including substance abuse) than with caring for their offspring.
Abt intersperses her nonfiction material with sobering statistics about inner-city joblessness, the percentage of kids growing up in the U.S. without a present father, and the rate of criminal recidivism. Although “Daddy Don’t Go” makes clear that the black community is most beset by this crisis (the film contends that one in nine African-American children grow up without a present father), its decision to highlight a group of multiethnic subjects — Omar and Alex are black, Roy is white, Nelson is Latino — emphasizes the idea that the problem, most prevalent in low-income areas, extends beyond any one demographic.
The impression that Nelson, Omar, Roy and Alex weren’t ready to be parents when their kids were born — and that, in at least some cases, they still aren’t quite prepared for the responsibility — inevitably colors Abt’s wrenching snapshot of their arduous efforts to obtain jobs (a difficult task with a rap sheet), please the courts, seek counseling, and establish stable home environments. Yet there’s no overt censure to be found in “Daddy Don’t Go,” merely empathy for individuals willing to face up to their past mistakes in order to create better futures for their progeny, and respect for the lengths they’ll go to achieve those ends.
For Nelson, that involves temporarily relocating his clan to Florida because of a promising (if ultimately fruitless) employment lead. And for Roy, it means continuing to cohabitate with his ailing dad, whom Roy claims, in a tearful candid audio clip, beat his daughters with a belt. In that moment, just as in late passages that find Alex turning to his mother to raise Alex Jr. while he accepts a jail-time plea deal, “Daddy Don’t Go” subtly suggests that these men are trying to overcome both their own misdeeds and those of their less-than-stellar parents, who share at least some accountability for these present, turbulent circumstances.
Using unobtrusive camerawork (courtesy of Andrew Nam Chul Osborne) to maintain an intimate focus on weary body language and tormented, desperate faces, Abt doesn’t offer solutions for the problems facing these fractured families; nor does she proffer comforting conclusions for each of her tales. Nonetheless, in her clear-sighted portrait, she maturely and poignantly captures the reality of Omar’s belief that “What matters is the love” — and the fact that, when it comes to parenthood, that isn’t always enough.