If there’s one thing you’ll take away from Daddy Don’t Go, Emily Abt’s compassionate but restrained documentary following four struggling single fathers in New York City, it’s that even when you love your kids desperately, and even when you want more than anything to do right by them, your problems might just be too big to outrun.

The specifics of that bleak sprint may vary. Maybe if you’re Roy, a 28-year-old from Long Island raising your son alone, it’s trying to outrun the demons of an abusive childhood, selling drugs as a teenager, and the resulting prison sentence and chronic unemployment.

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Maybe if you’re Nelson, a 26-year-old in the Bronx helping raise the three children of your girlfriend, it’s trying to outrun a gang past and chronic unemployment. Maybe if you’re Omar, 34, living in the Bronx, utterly devoted to your four children, it’s a learning disability that’s made employment untenable, one you now struggle to help navigate with your daughter, who has inherited it. Or if you’re 26-year-old Alex, you are smitten with your two-year-old son, but haunted by an assault you still stand to do time for, even as you’ve fought for custody and worked to certify as a mechanic.

But as the documentary glides through these uneasy lives with uncertain futures, building scenes of loving fathers up against impossible circumstances, you can chart a trajectory of hopelessness as formulaic as any horror movie plot. These men were set up to fail from the beginning in one way or another, but mostly through a combination of poverty, lack of education, terrible childhoods, and a kind of toxic model of masculinity it’s almost impossible to unravel.

And yet they try as if their lives and their children’s depend on it. Nelson had a rough childhood—his mother had a serious coke habit and he ended up in foster care, at one point staying with six different families in six months. As an adult, he can’t find work, but is devoted to his girlfriend’s children no matter what. Roy’s father was abusive, and by 11 years old, Roy was smoking weed, drinking 40s and, eventually, selling drugs. He did prison time, but he loves his son, and insists he won’t let him be like him, that he “doesn’t want him at 30 years old with demons floating around inside him.” Omar had a learning disability that made it hard for him to do well in school, and now, he says his kids are everything to him, that he won’t let them ever feel unloved.

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That these men have risen to the occasion to nurture despite hostile circumstances—most of the mothers are absentee—does not make them heroes, but it does help upend the notion of the absent father, too consumed with his own life to take seriously the role of fatherhood. These men could not be more devoted, but they are up against problems with no easy solution, where meaning well in light of crippling obstacles won’t get you very far.

What’s more, in scenes with judges, or social workers, or at shelters, or in job training courses, or counseling, you see people who are clearly inured to the struggles of working class people. Their crimes, mistakes, or struggles play out in a culture that demands “perfection” from people who can’t produce that idea of “perfect.”

When Alex goes to court to deal with a prior assault, he tells the judge he is trying to get certified to be a mechanic. But a missed class needs explaining. He was trying to get vaccinations for his son, he says. The judge says if she can verify that’s why he missed class, she’ll let it slide, but this threat coaxes the truth out of Alex: He was trying to get vaccinations at the ER, but the line was too long, and in a fit of impatience, he left. The judge remands him to a month of time at Rikers, and he eventually must leave his son with his mother to do a six-month rehab stint that looks like faux military school.

Meanwhile, Nelson and Rebecca and their three children move to Florida on the promise of Rebecca’s mother, who’s lined up employment for him and a place to stay—a cross-country trip all for a starting pay of $9.50 an hour. But when the job falls through because Nelson has long hair, and the apartment turns out to be a trailer, they trek back to the familiar, out more money and time taking a chance on an unknown.

In discussions about unemployed, struggling parents, or anyone who can’t seem to bootstrap their way out of bad times, Americans tend to look for where the mistakes came, to plot the twists of the poorest choices, as if to say, See? This is where you took a wrong turn. If only you’d done this or that. But Daddy Don’t Go shows that even the best efforts hardly move the needle when the deck is this stacked against you.


Image via screenshot.