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“Through the Night” starts off as an inspirational documentary about a woman who diligently performs the kind of service whose very existence may not have even occurred to some people, but which has proven to be a godsend to others. On that level, the film works well enough as like an extended version of a feel-good item you might have seen on the news back in those long-ago times when “slow news days” were a thing. However, as Loira Limbal’s film goes on, a second and altogether deeper narrative begins to emerge, as the film becomes a quiet, unsparing indictment of the long-standing failures of America’s social safety net, and how people like the central character here go to extraordinary lengths to fill holes in the system that the government either cannot or will not fix.
The woman in question is Deloris “Nunu” Hogan, a resident of New Rochelle, New York. Along with her husband Patrick (a.k.a. “Pop Pop”), she runs a day care center, Dee’s Tots, out of their home. That includes overnight care options, a godsend for single parents who are forced to work late shifts or who need to work more than one part-time job in order to support their families. While the quality of day care workers can be extremely variable, what we see of Nunu at work suggests she is indeed one of the very good ones. Even though just watching the scenes of her charges will leave more than a few viewers exhausted, she handles everything from giddy rambunctiousness to the occasional meltdown with a combination of gentle humor and infinite patience that's sometimes astounding to behold.
Nunu clearly loves caring for kids. But at the same time, she's driven by the realization that, as she puts it, “This is the way the world is set up at this point.” There's little evident government interest in helping to provide for affordable child care for working parents. At the same time, many businesses are resistant to providing anything resembling a living wage to their employees, right down to limiting their hours per week to 29 so that they do not have to give them the benefits due to full-time workers. This forces many of those parents to seek additional jobs in an attempt to make a little more money to provide for their kids. But by doing so, they guiltily realize that they are ensuring they have less time to spend the money, and are usually exhausted during the brief respites when they can be with them.
Although Nunu clearly loves her job and the kids under her care, the job exacts an enormous toll on her. Trying to care for a number of children can be emotionally draining and at one point, Nunu frankly admits that “my children didn’t get what I had to get to the other kids.” The job is also physically draining as well. At one point, we see her visiting a doctor who treats her tendinitis with steroid shots and informs her that if she doesn’t give picking up heavy things a rest, surgery will most likely be required. Of course, caring for kids by definition means picking up things all the time, so there's no realistic way of accomplishing that outside of taking a complete break from her job. At the same time, she's also painfully aware of how many lives and livelihoods could be threatened if anything took her away from work for even a brief moment.
Limbai captures all of this in a direct, unforced, and restrained manner that makes its points about the need for reform to social services without becoming overly strident. The only real complaint I have is that I wish that she had spent a little more time (the film clocks in at a mere 76 minutes) with the three parents utilizing Nunu’s services whom she follows as they struggle to provide for the kids that they hardly see. But after watching the movie, you will feel a greater sense of admiration for Nunu, and the others like her who affect so many lives with their good work.
Now available in virtual cinemas.