A 2 1/2 hour-long documentary about the life of a struggling Brooklyn family headed by a 42-year-old recovering crack addict may seem daunting — so much pain, so much disheartening detail. But the film, assembled by Jennifer Dworkin, is much more than a wallow in underclass pathology. It’s the story of a family whose members have received damaging wounds from several sources and who are trying to make the best of a nearly hopeless situation. Like everyone else, Diane Hazzard and her children are trying to find some balance between personal happiness and personal — and familial — responsibility. It’s a common dilemma made more complicated by poverty and a fractured family history.
Diane, the recovering addict and matriarch, had been separated from her six children for the past 10 years, first forcefully and then by choice — or what remaining choice a heavy user has. She is now, against great odds, trying to hold her remaining brood together. (A son, Charles, had committed suicide earlier.) Her main conflict is with her daughter Love, an 18-year-old who has just given birth to a son, Donyeah; the father, whoever he is, is not part of the film. Love seems like a mother not so much unfit as unformed — her early neglect by Diane has left her sourly self-absorbed, a condition aggravated by the clinical depression that also plagues her mother. When one of Love’s dark moods leads to her flinging furniture around the house, her mother calls the cops for help, which results in Donyeah being taken away from her and placed with a foster mother.
Much of the film, then, is concerned with Love’s attempts to regain custody of her son. At times Love seems to be her own worst enemy: When her case worker makes it clear that she won’t get Donyeah back unless she regularly attends therapy sessions, she still refuses, complaining that all the therapist wants to do is have her talk about her past and she doesn’t see how that this can be helpful. Of course, if that was what she really thought, she could just go through the motions in order to get her son back, but it’s clear that her past is something she doesn’t want to delve into too deeply. Besides the painful memories of being abandoned by her mother, she also feels responsible for what happened; she was the one who, when she was 8 years old, told one of her schoolteachers that her mother was a crack addict. So mother and daughter ratted on each other unintentionally, or at least without being aware of the consequences.
This isn’t the only unhappy symmetry in the family history. Diane’s mother was an alcoholic who abandoned her and then died young; that’s the template that hangs over the family like some curse of unknown origin.
There are a lot of other characters here who we learn less about but who are no less interesting. These include Love’s current boyfriend Courtney, who could possibly be a stabilizing influence, and her caseworker, a woman who seems genuinely concerned about and infinitely patient with her troubled client. Then there’s Diane’s son, the one who didn’t make it, and Love’s son, the one who might. At one point, possibly under the influence of the therapy she so dreads, Love says that Charles sexually abused her, but it’s never mentioned again — he remains the family’s ghostly martyr, a young man with (according to Diane) three years of college and a good job who just one day shot himself, which suggests that he was another victim of the family’s tendency toward depression.
Toward the end of the film Diane has a breakthrough — she finds her niche, something which allows her to express her natural empathy and put to use the strong will which helped her survive so much. It seems like a triumph of self-determination combined with a great deal of luck. Watching Dworkin’s film you get the feeling that nothing is so simple in the lives of these people that it can be resolved by good intentions or making the right choices. As for Love, getting back Donyeah means getting back a responsibility that she may not be ready to take on. The film rouses our compassion and then ends on a note of ambiguity. Which is the only way it could end, and which is an ending that’s a step up from its beginning.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, Sept. 19-21. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].