No one ever said parenting would be easy, but how easy can it be when the state is watching you and waiting for a screw-up? Is any home perfect? Is any family? And are we holding some people to a higher standard because they have an open file with Child Protective Services or Family Court? All good questions, and before you answer yes to that last one, let’s consider the case of Patrick Brown in Seattle and Hannah Siddique in New York City, as they are the main characters in Stephanie Wang-Breal’s sometimes brutal and often heartbreaking documentary, Tough Love.
Wang-Breal introduces us to Patrick, a former drug addict who called CPS while doing in time in prison because he was concerned about his daughter Natalya and her mother’s spiralling drug use. Natalya’s placed in a foster home, but once Patrick gets out of prison, taking custody of his daughter requires him to keep up with his substance abuse treatment, get a steady job, create a good home environment, and then go back to court and hear that his progress thus far is still not good enough to get him his daughter back.
In NYC, Hannah has similar yet completely different problems. Three years earlier she got into a fight with her then boyfriend Sammy that resulted in broken glass cutting their young son and a phone call to the police. Sammy arrested by the cops and the two toddlers were taken away by the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS). Years later, as Hannah and her new husband Philly are expecting a baby, they live in a relative’s two bedroom apartment waiting to see if they qualify for social housing or other types of assistance that will allow them to get the other two kids home under their roof.
One of the things that I think Wang-Breal does quite brilliantly is she challenges the viewer’s preconceived notions about why these parents are in the system and whether or not their children might be better off without them. Patrick is a drug abuser, right? And in a fit of depression one night he decides to partake in some supposedly harmless gambling that almost costs him his home when he spends his rent money. As for Hannah, she’s 19. What’s she doing with three kids? Her husband pushes around a nut cart and is practically living a life that’s no better than couch surfing?
But what price is perfection? It’s about halfway through the movie as Patrick’s going through his umpteenth court appointment, all of which happens in the middle of the work day mind you, when his advocate asks the question, do you think Patrick’s being held to a higher standard? It’s a powerful moment that kind of brings the film to a temporary halt and makes you realize that in our daily lives we’ve probably seen countless examples of parents doing things that make us wonder if they are fit to have children. I myself remember the nice family of four with two boys under the age of ten that sat behind me at a screening of Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem. Maybe child welfare should have seized those kids?
If anything, there’s a sense of heroism in these characters, for if the quality that makes one heroic is overcoming tremendous odds in order to do the right thing, then Patrick and Hannah really are heroes. The villain? Government forces, obviously. Hannah and Philly are eventually turned down as unqualified for social housing, which makes one wonder why they were put through that rigorous process in the first place. Even more bizarrely, Hannah’s two older kids, Nia and A.J., are sent to live with their father, the one who was so abusive that the police were called. Oh, and he lives in nearly the same situation as Hannah and Philly. It seems completely arbitrary, but it also seems that once the system puts a label on you, it’s really more like a brand. And this is supposed to be a compassionate system?
I can’t imagine that either Patrick or Hannah were comfortable allowing Wang-Breal to air their dirty laundry in a film, but I give them full credit for their openness and honesty, and I salute the director herself for making them feel comfortable and heard as she chronicled their struggles. The film avoids easy answers and strong judgments. Instead, it allows the viewer rare access to deeply personal issues that no one ever wants to go through.
Tough Love is true to its title. It’s tough to watch as people so sincere struggle so hard to be able to do something so obvious, which is to live with and love their children. To me ,that these parents would submit themselves to such an inquisitorial process is proof enough that they’re fit, but the entire endeavor is a reminder that being a bad parent is okay, but being a parent that’s learning to be better is worse.
Tough Love is a stinging and insightful documentary about the struggles of people who are trying to be good parents, but are chaffed by a system that sees them as bad.