Daddy I Do is an examination of the radically divergent approaches that different segments of American society take when it comes to sex education. But it’s more than that; it’s both a liberal polemic (albeit a very well-reasoned one) and an affectingly personal examination of the effects of sexual choices on different individuals.
Director Cassie Jaye begins the film with a fictionalized encounter between father and daughter, a ritual known as a “purity ball.” A practice common in recent years in certain conservative swaths of the country, purity balls are essentially rituals in which young girls (the film profiles some as young as 6) pledge to place their virginity in their fathers’ protective custody until such time as marriage allows them to transfer it to their husbands. Think of it as a 21st century father-daughter dance, with a large helping of quasi-religious zealotry thrown in.
This opening scene comes off as fairly creepy—it’s hard to imagine how it couldn’t—but the film quickly moves into documentary mode, where it stays for its 90-minute duration. Jaye interviews a conservative family with three young girls, all of whom are going to be put through the purity ball ritual. It’s clear that she regards their almost fanatical obsession with their young daughters’ virginity as slightly unbalanced. However, she manages to elicit a heartfelt response from the father when she asks him whether or not he saved his own virginity for marriage (he didn’t); he instantly owes up to his own hypocrisy, but goes on to describe how he simply wants to protect his daughters from his own past mistakes. The impression we’re left with is mixed. Clearly, these people are at the extreme end of the virginity continuum, but it’s easy to see how they ended up there. There’s no searing indictment; Jaye simply observes the family, asks the most direct questions she can, and allows her subjects to speak for themselves.
The film then proceeds to a frat house, where college boys display irreconcilable levels of lust and right-wing politics. Again, Jaye’s unobtrusive interview strategy is remarkably effective; even though they’re interviewed in a group, these boys reveal things that it’s hard to imagine them discussing over pizza and beer pong. Jaye then zeroes in on one of her main subjects: Denny Pattyn, founder of the abstinence-promotion organization Silver Ring Thing. Pattyn quickly reveals himself to be truly fanatical, railing against the promotion of condoms as some sort of government conspiracy and casting comprehensive sex-ed programs as nothing short of a one-way ticket to Sodom and Gomorrah. Jaye also interviews some participants in Pattyn’s movement (boys, again) who display a stunning lack of basic knowledge about sex as well as a wide-eyed gullibility that is clearly captivated by Silver Ring Thing’s rock-concert atmosphere. Who’d have thought not getting any could be so much fun?
The heart of Jaye’s film, however, is her numerous interviews with various women, all of whom have been affected dramatically by their sexual choices. There’s a young single mother of two who left home at 14 and lived out of her car; a 25-year-old with five children who first became pregnant to escape from a gang; and a pale young woman who talks with stomach-turning openness about the abortion she wishes she hadn’t had. What all of these women share, besides a stunning honesty, is a lack of basic knowledge about sex and reproduction as well as a lack of options and resources. As Jaye moves on to interview authors and academics, the theme that gets repeated to her over and over is that, in the absence of comprehensive sex ed, young people will almost inevitably make what turn out to be truly detrimental choices about sex and reproduction.
These first-person accounts tie in nicely with what the various talking heads tell us: that epidemic sexual abuse in girls is a predictor of teen pregnancy, that access to contraception and abortion are sorely lacking in most of the country, and that a focus on abstinence-only “education” actually ends up making unintended pregnancy (not to mention disease) more likely. What’s most shocking of all is Jaye’s revelation that Silver Ring Thing actually received massive amounts of federal funding under the Bush administration, a testament to how vehemently the conservative movement endorses abstinence to the exclusion of even the most basic sex education. Indeed, one of the professors Jaye visits neatly displays the correlation between teen pregnancy rates and the political leanings of each of the 50 states; the correlation between conservative voting and higher teen pregnancy is indisputable.
This is Jaye’s first feature-length documentary, and in some technical areas this is obvious. The camera isn’t always steady and the film sometimes cuts back and forth between shots too jarringly. It’s clear that Jaye had only a tiny budget to work with, but the minor problems this presents do not influence the overall impact of the film. Most importantly, even though Daddy I Do clearly has its own political agenda, Jaye’s portrayal of the Evangelical/abstinence-only movement, and Denny Pattyn in particular, is not chopped up into Michael Moore-style sound bytes. Rather, she allows Pattyn to speak at length, and as he waxes more and more rhapsodic he ends up indicting his own point of view more effectively than anyone else could have.
It’s hard not to come away from Daddy I Do agreeing with everything the film has to say. But unlike many other recent political documentaries, one doesn’t feel swindled into agreement; like the best documentarians, Jaye explores this complex issue in enough depth that the viewer is actually educated by the film, not brainwashed by it. This takes true talent and maturity, traits that will serve Jaye well throughout what I’m sure will be a long, successful career.