A striking film that evokes a wave of emotions, Natalie Rae and Angela Patton’s Daughters is another picture––à la Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence, Garrett Bradley’s Time, and Zara Katz and Lisa Riordan Seville’s A Women on the Outside––focusing directly on the impact prison sentences have on families. All three films discuss the direct and indirect costs of keeping in touch with loved ones “inside,” from visiting far-flung facilities across the state or country to the exorbitant rates charged by companies (e.g. Secures Technologies) for video visits and emails. Daughters is an oft-poetic look at the impact this separation has on four girls, ages five to 15: Aubrey, Santana, Ja’Anna, and Raziah.

Early on we learn from Clinique Chapman, a prison social worker overseeing this project, that a group of girls have petitioned the local sheriff overseeing the prison in Washington, DC, for the “Date with Dad” program to hold a dance. Founded by co-director Angela Patton, the program includes ten weeks of sessions with Chad Morris, a fatherhood coach helping heal broken bonds between the fathers’ daughters and their former partners. In these sessions, the men are given advice on reconnecting while Cliniquee must navigate some of the logistical and emotional hurdles to executing the dance. These include the fact that several men are estranged from their daughters due to prison policies that have not permitted “touch visits.” Instead, the men visit with their families on video, often at a great expense.

While the nature of their father’s crimes are not disclosed therein, their sentences range from seven years to 30, with each of the girls––including the brilliant and articulate five-year-old Aubrey––doing the math in one of the earliest scenes. Others have grown detached––including Santana, age ten, who laments that her father keeps “messing up,” while her mother Diamond, in her mid-20s, appears somewhat detached in a troubling introduction scene that takes place on a street. In that exchange Santana tells us she can’t see herself having children until she’s in her mid-30s at the very least, a recognition that her mother and father were too young to properly care for her.

Other daughters face similar challenges. Raziah, age 15, is struggling both personally and academically, though she continues to press onwards. Ja’Anna, age 11, can remember a time when her father was outside of the prison system and, like Aubrey, counts down to when they’ll be reunited.

The film’s free-flowing, sometimes experimental structure proves evocative. Cinematographer Cambio Fernandez shoots on film, giving Daughters a timeless aesthetic and preserving what Chad calls the top of the roller coaster: the eventual dance. One wishes, however, editors Troy Lewis and Adelina Bichis tightened up the structure a bit. What is gained is the candid honesty of the exchanges between fathers, who proceed to do the work, and their daughters who are forced to carry the burden.

While structure rightly emphasizes the daughters and the support system they will need, at times these poetic passages are less-effective than when we’re in pure verité mode. The marriage of these two sensibilities is not always as flawless as needed, though it’s difficult to deny the emotional impact of witnessing the reunion. Clinique and the “Date with Dad” organization provide these men a brief moment of freedom. They’re dressed for the occasion in suits, the prison gymnasium is set up like a middle school dance, and mothers are nearby but not in the same room. The effect is bold and undeniable in the moment, but a tighter focus might have elevated Daughters as one of the year’s great documentaries.

Daughters premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

No more articles