The United States is by far the world’s leader in incarceration, with the current trend toward privatization of prisons for profit assuring that dubious title is unlikely to be shed anytime soon. One under-discussed consequence of this lust for lockup is the fact that an estimated one in 14 American youths have a parent in custody. Denali Tiller’s potent, sometimes wrenchingly intimate “Tre Maison Dasan” follows three Rhode Island boys raised under those circumstances, with fathers behind bars (and one mother just newly released).
All have problems — different ones, but most at least partly traceable to the insecurity and instability bred by a parent’s long absence. This engrossing documentary focuses primarily on the kids as each grows through some rough developmental patches. But en route a few stereotypes get demolished, most notably the notion that every convict is a “deadbeat dad” or otherwise inherently bad person. Very well-crafted, this feature directorial debut is an excellent non-fiction drama with several layers of topical resonance to encourage its exposure in an election year.
Though their paths do not cross, the three boys identified in the title all live in the small working-class city of Cranston, Rhode Island. Thirteen-year-old Tre is stuck in an apartment with fed-up mother Kerri. Their relationship is, to put it mildly, rather discordant: He’s a foul-mouthed handful who already smokes, while she is straight outta “Gone Baby Gone.” He desperately needs the support of dad Tyree who, unfortunately, has been in and out of prison (but mostly in) his entire life, and won’t be free again for some time to come. Tre is angry, self-sabotaging, but not yet so jaded as to be beyond reach.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s, 11-year-old Maison is a possibly-brilliant child who is unnervingly articulate about describing his anxieties, hyperactivity, and coping mechanisms. (“That’s what my life has come to: meditation,” he announces at one point with the weary resignation of a fortysomething divorcée.) Left behind since his mother decamped to California for somewhat murky reason, he’s been raised by a doting grandmother who clearly does a decent job meeting his high-maintenance needs. Still, he directs a great deal of his plaintive emotionalism toward father Manny, who’s in prison for a homicide.
The youngest subject here is Dasan, an adorable and sweet-natured 6-year-old who’s been living with his grandparents since his mother “went away.” Early on in the film, she is released and soon comes clean with the news that she wasn’t “at school” but in jail for setting fire to a former neighbor’s house. This is one of numerous very moving parent-child scenes in “Tre Maison Dasan,” whose filmmakers must have spent a long time getting to know their subjects — there’s an unguardedness to exchanges caught here that’s so nakedly vulnerable at times that it can be hard to watch.
Focusing on the here-and-now, (almost) never asking the boys questions like an interviewer, Tiller only provides as much intel on the families’ troubled pasts and parental crimes as happens to spill out. But none of the cons in question can be pigeonholed: Dasan’s mom is working earnestly and conscientiously to make up for lost time (there’s a particularly endearing scene when she takes him on a long-desired Cub Scouts camp-out), while both Dasan and Tre’s fathers (whom they regularly visit at medium-security facilities) are as emotionally involved as possible under the circumstances. Unlike plenty of parents not behind bars, they’re all huggers more than willing to tell these needy kids that they are loved.
There’s plenty of breaking drama over the film’s timespan, particularly for Tre, who’s the eldest, most at-risk, and sadly most hard-hit by fresh woes here. But mercifully the epilogue text scrolls suggest there’s no reason to give up hope yet for three rapidly growing boys toward whom audiences will easily have developed quasi-parental concerns of their own.
“Tre Maison Dasan” is very skillfully put together, from the astute narrative shape achieved by Tiller and editor Carlos Rojas Felice to DP Jon Gourlay’s on-the-fly yet often handsome imagery. (The director’s 2015 “Sons and Daughters of the Incarcerated” provided a shorter-form origin for some material used in this, her feature debut.) Gil Talmi’s original score, which mixes spare piano themes with synthy sounds and more, is another thoughtful contribution.