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Tre Maison Dasan
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by Jay Seaver

"Punish the parents, punish the kids."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: "Tre Maison Dasan" will often be described as a documentary about growing up with at least one parent incarcerated, but it's not quite that: It's about being a kid whose mother or father is in jail, and that's something different. These three boys have too little control over their situations to overcome much, so the audience is placed in a position of mainly watching and trying to understand without much judgment. It's a tricky sort of documentary - the filmmakers can't really want the drama that creates a traditional storyline - but one that often proves engrossing and illuminating.

The title names the three kids in the general area of Providence, Rhode Island, from youngest to oldest: Tre Janson is thirteen and already starting to find trouble; he and his father compare ankle monitors when Tre visits him in prison, and that father often seems like the most stable one in the family, considering how erratic Tre's mother Kerri can be. Maison Teixeira is eleven and on the autistic spectrum, living with his grandmother so he can both be close to close to his father and attend a special-needs school while his mother is out in California. Six-year-old Dasan Lopes is probably the most fortunate - not only has he been taken in by extended family, with a cousin who is like a sister to him, but his mother Stephanie is just about to be released as the film starts, and is determined to make things work..

These three are an interesting group of kids and you can see why producer/director Denali TIller chose them; they've got big personalities and distinct situations. One of the more interesting choices she makes is that none of the parents are in jail for smoking weed or something else that would make this a film about all the ways in which the American justice system is prone to excessive incarceration. That's a worthy topic, but there's something fascinating by the situations shown here, as all three parents try to take ownership of their past misdeeds. Watching them do so does sometimes implicitly raise the question of what the system should do, but it's the way they handle it that's most powerful, from how Maison's father seems to be trying to keep his son from to thinking too highly of him to how Dasan seems unable to process that his loving mother could have done something so awful

Generally, the film is at its best when it's not focusing on the practical realities of that situation but on the feelings of abandonment these kids feel, often coming from an unexpected direction. Tiller doesn't bother with a great deal of statistics or spend very much time having experts explain situations to the camera or watch any specific process for very long, but she does find understated and memorable moments, especially the ones where the parent in prison is almost incidental, like Maison's voice cracking as he realizes that his mother has other plans during her rare visit. There's no fallback or reassurance for them when something goes wrong, and just a little bit of self-doubt.

One does wonder, at times, the extent to which the camera encourages the kids and (especially) the adults to be on their best behavior, even if it does eventually seem to be a fly on the wall with things playing out before it. Tiller and editor Carlos Rojas do an excellent job of pulling a film together not just despite the seeming limitations of how it's not practical to be shooting everything every day even before the fact that there's fairly little overlap between these family's lives complicates that, accepting that there are gaps in the narrative that might ideally be filled, putting things together without perfect resolution. It's an ongoing situation, after all.

As such, "Tre Maison Dasan" does not wind up as a call to action except in the most broad sense. It gives the audience something to think about in general, but gains its strength by how specific it is.

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originally posted: 06/06/18 23:33:09
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4/03/19 judith coker stunning, intimate, poignant and essential 5 stars
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