'Tough Love': DOC NYC Review

Tough Love Still - H 2014
Courtesy of eyeWANG Pictures

Tough Love Still - H 2014

This intimate doc puts a human face on an often unforgiving bureaucracy

Stephanie Wang-Breal's documentary examines the cases of two parents caught up in the child welfare system

The acronyms come flying fast and furious in Stephanie Wang-Breal's documentary about the intricacies of the child welfare system. Tracking two parents as they desperately make their way through such bureaucratic agencies as New York's Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), Administration for Children's Services (ACS), Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) and Seattle's Family Court (FTC), Tough Love offers a sobering depiction of people caught up in situations defying easy solutions. The hard-hitting film was recently showcased at the DOC NYC festival and is scheduled for broadcast on PBS' POV series early next year.

The filmmaker wisely presents a microcosm of the system via intimate portraits of two cases. One concerns Patrick Brown, a white, single father in Seattle whose past includes drug and alcohol addictions. The other involves Bangladeshi-born Hannah Siddique, the mother of two young children from a previous relationship who were taken away from her after a fight with her boyfriend resulted in his getting arrested. Now remarried to a man named Philly and living with him in his mother's apartment, she's pregnant with a third child, who's also being threatened with being removed from her custody.

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Both subjects are appealing enough to rouse the viewer's sympathies. Brown, recovering from his addictions, is clearly devoted to his young daughter and has found steady employment as a landscaper. But a brief relapse results in his once again being hauled before the Seattle court where the judge clearly seems to be rooting for him despite her doubts about his suitability to take care of his child. 

Siddique, meanwhile, is clearly in love with her husband and fairly glows during the late stages of her pregnancy. But the couple's precarious financial situation and cramped living conditions, which at one point finds them temporarily relocated to a Bronx shelter that looks like a minimum security prison, might result in their child being taken away from them unless they can find affordable housing, a near impossibility in New York City.

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Featuring neither heroes nor villains and depicting the parents' grappling with the system with a clear-eyed, nonjudgmental dispassion, Tough Love raises more questions than it answers. Forcing us to reexamine our perceptions of what makes for good parenting, it delivers an invaluable portrait of an imperfect system that tries to do the right thing but sadly doesn't always succeed.

Production: eyeWANG Pictures
Director: Stephanie Wang-Breal
Producers: Stephanie Wang-Breal, Carrie Weprin
Executive producers: Simon Kilmurry, Cynthia Lopez, Sally Jo Fifer
Directors of photography: Nadia Hallgren, Nathan Miller
Editors: Colin Nusbaum, Mary Manhardt
Composer: Tyler Strickland

No rating, 75 min.