By Andrea Thompson
Perhaps it’s a limitation of mine, but I’m not much of a fan of verité or fly-on-the-wall documentaries, which often seem to tear down illusions by depending on another: that the directors themselves will shape much of our perception of what we see, whether they want to or not. “Through the Night” won me over though, not because director Loira Limbal has any illusions about objectivity, but because she prefers to step back and show the toll inequality takes on the very people our culture supposedly reveres most – families.
The families in question do have a kind of nontraditional heroine in Nunu, who runs a 24-hour daycare in Westchester, New York, a setup which has become normalized as many parents find themselves living to work rather than working to live. For them, calling Nunu a heroine is no exaggeration. If you have to leave your children in someone else’s hands, hers seem to be the ideal ones. From the film’s opening, which gives us our first intimate glimpses of the daycare Nunu runs out of her home, it’s clear Nunu doesn’t just watch the children she’s entrusted with, she cares for them. She gives them homework, then works with them to answer their questions to ensure they understand it, and encourages the kids to be better by respecting and loving each other. In turn, they show her the kind of casual respect that involves cleaning up when asked, and giving her their full attention when she speaks, both small miracles in themselves. Nunu also shows the parents the same care and attention, often asking for updates on their tenuous situations and offering the kind of quietly sympathetic ear they seldom receive.
It’s exhausting work, and it takes a toll on everyone, with Nunu forced to realize she’s only human after some serious health issues take their toll. The mothers, especially the single ones, don’t just have to work through indignities of constant, and punishing work schedules, but the ever-present guilt of not having more to give. More of themselves, more resources for their children, or more reassurances about the effects such constant pressures will have on them. “Eventually I’ll sleep,” a glassy-eyed woman murmurs near the end. That all of this will all of this to go unseen is impossible, and even the smallest kids casually talk to each other about how little rest their moms get, with the older ones fearing adulthood and the bills that will accompany it. Limbal’s relaxed approach means no one, including Nunu, is endowed with a halo, but it does make some details, such as the names of various parents and the exact timing of many of the film’s developments, rather elusive. Perhaps the most bitter thing of all is that a film like this, which should be making a name for itself at various festivals, may not gain the audience it deserves due to events far beyond anyone’s control.