Review: Tough Love (Wang-Breal, 2014) – CAAMFest 2015

Still from the movie Tough Love

Stephanie Wang-Breal‘s second feature-length documentary Tough Love screened at CAAMFest last month. Wang-Breal follows two stories of parents separated by Child Protective Services from their children and their long and frustrating quests to regain custody. In one case, a father from Seattle phoned CPS from prison when he realized his daughter’s mother was using methamphetamines again. In another, a young Brooklyn woman sought to keep her children’s father away from them after he threw her into a glass window. In both instances, the involvement of CPS resulted in the complainant parent coming under scrutiny as well, setting off what seems like a nightmare process of separation and state interference.

Tough Love is a real tearjerker if you have children of your own (especially if you’re feeling a bit hormonal from a recent birth). Nevertheless, I feel its potency is diluted by the dual storylines, which, while topically similar (at least at a superficial level), don’t really resonate with each other. Neither are there enough interviewees to make a broader comment on the child welfare system. And the cuts back and forth between the two subjects on opposite sides of the country happen with no apparent logic. It’s not exactly distracting, but neither does it enhance the storytelling.

Still, as I mentioned in my CAAMFest preview, Tough Love is the rare documentary of its kind that shines a light on a social issue without also advocating a particular position. Specifically, I’ve noticed in the past that films like this–even nuanced ones–tend to take a resolute stance, usually against some arcane bureaucracy or misguided policy, for the sake of a narrative that exposes the ways in which society or government is failing a certain population. Don’t get me wrong–these are powerful films. But sometimes I wonder if the filmmaker’s agenda doesn’t get in the way of truth-telling. It would probably have been tempting for Wang-Breal to make a film in a similar vein, but Tough Love is not an indictment of the child welfare system. While compassionate, the documentary doesn’t attempt to hide that both of its adult subjects are clearly flawed and suffering from their past (and present) mistakes. And it does show that sometimes the system, however meddlesome, is comprised of caring humans who are capable of delivering satisfying outcomes for families.

In any case, I found the film compelling enough to include it in my 4 Must-See Documentaries at CAAMFest 2015. Though CAAMFest is now over, the film will be nationally broadcast on PBS as part of its POV documentary series on Monday, July 6th, at 10 pm EST.