That's what I had to tell myself after watching Denali Tiller's deeply affecting feature film debut Tre Maison Dasan, a film that may seem oddly titled until you realize that the 94-minute feature doc is an intimate portrait of three boys - Tre Janson, Maison Teixeira, and Dasan Lopes - as they grow up, each of them having a parent in prison.
The power of Tiller's work here is precisely that she avoids going for heightened dramatics or false dramatic notes, instead trusting the poignancy and inherent power contained within the stories that are told here through each child's perspective.
Tre Maison Dasan, easily one of my own favorite cinematic experiences screening at the 2018 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis going on from Oct. 11-21, explores the impact of separation on relationship along with definitions, spoken and unspoken, on masculinity and what it's like to come of age with a parent behind bars.
The film, which picked up the Flickers' Youth Film Jury Award for Best Feature Doc at the Rhode Island International Film Festival along with the fest's Grand Prize, is screening at Heartland in competition and is a finalist for the Academy Award-qualifying fest's Best Documentary Feature prize. While this year's competition is almost unfathomably tough, Tre Maison Dasan is an amazing film.
While it's commonly known that the United States is greatest practitioner of incarceration in the world, one equally common consequence of such a fact, which seems unlikely to change any time soon, is that 1 in 14 U.S. youths have a parent in custody. Tiller's film follows three youths, all boys, who all have their fathers in prison, though it's worth noting that one of the three also has had their mother only recently released from prison. All three of the boys are troubled, at least to a certain degree, and Tre Maison Dasan powerfully and effectively makes its connections on the cyclical nature of these issues.
While Tre Maison Dasan doesn't flinch in showing cycles left unbroken, Tiller is smart enough of a filmmaker to avoid falling into cheesy stereotypes and lazy label-making. The film's most impactful sequences are those involving everday intimacies between the fathers and their sons, intimacies that reveal over and over that making bad choices doesn't make someone a bad person.
In essence, Tre Maison Dasan is a microcosm view of a national concern given that all three of the boys are from Cranston, a small town inside the small state of Rhode Island.
Tre is, perhaps, the most difficult child to watch as the 13-year-old has obviously been deeply impacted by his father's nearly lifelong absence that isn't going to end anytime soon. Frequently in conflict with his mother, Tre already smokes and possesses a volatility that one senses could either be squelched or explode at any given time. It's easy to get the feeling that Tre may already be beyond reach, yet so subtly immersed into his life is Tiller's camera that we get a hint that maybe there's still hope to be found.
Maison, on the other hand, is an 11-year-old diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome who's left in the care of an obviously caring grandmother after his father was imprisoned for homicide and his mother just plain checked out. Maison is an obviously intelligent young man, yet also a young man who has difficulty with emotional regulation and way too many life experiences that no 11-year-old should have to be dealing with.
Finally, there's Dasan. Dasan is the most likely to grab your heart, a precocious 6-year-old whose mother is released from prison early in the film and who sets out trying to make up for bad choices and big mistakes including coming clean with her son, who'd been told that she'd gone off to "school" yet learns that she was imprisoned for setting fire to a former neighbor's home. While there's much heart to be found in Tre Maison Dasan, there's almost a gooey center inside the story of Dasan. It's a welcome reprieve and a tremendous narrative arc that breathes life and balance into the film.
Tiller's approach is decidedly non-invasive here, often avoiding what would have seemed like obvious questioning in favor of allowing natural relationships to reveal surprisingly vulnerable truths. Given the power of the stories here, it's almost surprising just how normal Tre Maison Dasan actually plays out.
Scenes involving Dasan and Tre's fathers unfold naturally, largely devoid of anything manipulative despite the inevitable stagey feeling apparent when forced to film inside a medium security prison during visitation. Somehow, Tiller makes it all seem incredibly natural and it's abundantly clear that despite their poor choices these fathers are doing the best they can to maintain a presence in the lives of their children.
Jon Gourlay's lensing is low-key and natural, while Gil Talmi's light, piano-driven original score perfectly complements the film's narrative and emotional journeys.
Tre Maison Dasan is screening at the following times during the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival:
- Oct. 15th @ 2:00pm at DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
- Oct. 18th @ 7:45pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
- Oct. 19th @ 5:30pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
- Oct. 20th @ 12:15pm at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
- Oct. 21st @ 2:00pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
For more information on tickets, visit the Heartland Film website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic