Tre Maison Dasan
Saturday, May 5, 2:15 p.m.,
Clairidge Cinema 4, 486 Bloomfield Ave.
Sunday, May 6, 4:15 p.m.,
Clairidge Cinema 3, 486 Bloomfield Ave.
Q&A with director Denali Tiller, producer Rebecca Stern, and Dasan to follow both screenings.

For Montclair Local

“Tre Maison Dasan,” a documentary featuring three boys whose parents are incarcerated (their names form the film title), delivers the powerful punch of intimacy with children who are brave and vulnerable, confused and wise and sometimes hilarious as they negotiate the particular difficulties of their family situations.

The film is directed by Denali Tiller, who spent more than a year as a fly-on-the-wall observer at home and on prison visits with the boys.

“There aren’t many films told through kids’ perspectives,very few that are not about analyzing experiences or dictating issue as we adults see it, but rather allowing the viewer to be immersed in the children’s experiences. Having a parent in prison affects the kids in this film every day, but it is not always depressing. They are lively, have funny moments, go to school, have friends,” Tiller said.

The boys, the most unlikely of film stars, come across as sensitive individuals ensconced in far-from-ideal circumstances. Their parents are also remarkable whatever their crimes , which are very serious, but not always clearly defined. Both parents display unconditional love for their sons. Each at some point takes responsibility for doing wrong in direct conversation with his or her son, and shepherds the child to some sort of reconciliation with the truth.

Tre, Maison, and Dasan are not natural birds of a feather. Tiller picked them out from the lineups at family visiting days at a prison near where she teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, hoping for diversity to illuminate her film. That is what she found:

• Tre, 13, is handsome and charismatic, a tough-talker, a youthful offender himself, who gives his mother lip and dissolves into tears in the arms of his father who has been incarcerated for most of both of his life.

• Maison, 11, is a hyper-intelligent, hyper-active thinker diagnosed with Aspergers, who exhibits profound understanding and affection for those around him.

• Dasan, 6, is a gentle and genial child, possessing, as Tiller puts it, “incredible capacity for empathy and curiosity.”

“Our capacity for empathy,” as Montclair Film Festival’s executive director Tom Hall noted on the opening night last week, is an overriding theme running through 160 films being seen this year. With her film, Tiller offers a warm invitation to feel authentic empathy for three kids as the effects of the criminal justice system ripple through their lives and complicate their emerging notions about masculinity.

“There is so much stigma against incarcerated people,” Tiller said. “It gets passed on to families, and the idea that ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from tree’ weighs heavily.

Tre, Maison and Dasan are each seen struggling with sorrowful – and in Tre’s case deeply angry – feelings about what their parents did to deserve to be taken away from them. The moments when these feelings are aired make for the most provocative, emotionally charged – and instructive - moments in the film.

“How do you feel when you come up here?” Maison’s dad asks him point blank. “Are you mad at me?” Maison demurs, but then asks his dad if he is mad at himself. “Yes, very, that’ll never change,” comes the reply. Maison tries to say everything will be different when his father gets paroled someday, sweeping his hand across the prison playroom table, and saying it’s a clean slate. “I know it’s a very dirty table, but still,” adds the witty, upbeat boy.

His dad pointedly turns the conversation to the feelings of victims’ families, who may or may not ever feel a slate can be wiped clean. “Do you think maybe everybody involved becomes a victim?” he asks.

There is nonetheless a lot of laughter, and hope, embodied in the film and its young characters. Dasan, who is scheduled to appear at the Montclair showings of the film with his mom – who is released from jail near the beginning of the film – will be talking of their new children’s book, “Resilient Mr. Ball,” written about a character who always bounces back.

“These kids are amazing,” says Tiller, who will also appear at the showings. “Amazing, but also typical, normal kids in so many ways.”