Monty (Idris Elba) is a good man. He’s hardworking, broad-shouldered, and affectionate toward his three young daughters, who turn giddy when he visits, proffering Pepperidge Farm treats and joyful hugs. His job down at Willie’s Garage doesn’t pay a whole lot, but he means to open his own auto shop some day, and so be able to keep his girls with him, rather than at his big-hearted ex-mother-in-law’s.
All this is set up in the first two minutes of Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls. Yet another of Perry’s possessively titled, strenuously life-affirming melodramas, this film leaves out his broadest invention, the wildly popular drag character Madea. But it does rummage around in his usual themes and stereotypes, touching on some and hammering home others. Contrived and well-intentioned, the movie looks at the effects of class conflicts, single parenting, drugs, violence, and gang-bangers on regular folks in the neighborhood, located, here as in other Perry movies, in Atlanta.
Living in a one-bedroom walkup in the city’s Edgewood section, Monty is limited in what he can offer his girls, five-year-old China (China Anne McClain), seven-year-old Lauryn (Lauryn Alisa McClain), and 12-year-old Sierra (Sierra Aylina McClain). But when their grandmother (Juanita Jennings) dies, he brings them home and offers his own queen-sized bed, while he takes the couch. (Grandma coughs a couple of times, then informs Monty she’s got lung cancer as the camera reveals her array of prescription pill bottles and an ashtray half-filled with cigarette butts: somehow, Monty has heretofore missed these odious cues.)
At the funeral in the next scene, you meet Monty’s ex, the long-absent, excessively trashy Jenny (Tasha Smith). She arrives with a flurry of accusations (somehow, she wasn’t invited to her mama’s funeral) and wild gestures, determined to grab back her daughters just as they’re getting into Monty’s car. Supported gruffly by her live-in boyfriend, drug dealer and local menace Joe (Gary Sturgis), Jenny draws fire from her Aunt Rita (“You out whoring around all this time!”) but insists that she’ll get her daughters back: “We goin’ to court!” she promises, only because she wants to make Monty miserable, not because she actually wants her daughters.
Jenny gets her chance following an off-screen mishap: Monty rushes to the hospital after he gets word that Sierra has started a fire in the apartment, discovered by their neighbor Maya (Malinda Williams), whose baby appears in one scene early in the film and never again. A social worker pops up in the waiting room and promptly hands over custody to Jenny and Joe — even as he and his crew stand before her looking as stereotypically thugged-out as they can, with gold chains, baseball caps, and surly faces. When a court sustains this ludicrous judgment, Monty faces disaster (his trauma is not nearly so horrific as the girls’, but theirs mostly happens, again, off-screen).
Jenny and Joe devise all kinds of terrible ways to exploit the girls: he sends Sierra to school with a joint to sell and hits little China, while Jenny takes bizarre delight in watching her daughters cry when they see her and Joe’s crew beat up a man who owes them money. A disappointingly outsized villain, Jenny fills up what would have been Madea’s space, only she’s not so strong, entertaining, or even convincing. In response to their tormenters, the girls tend mostly to huddle together on various sofas, their adorable faces pained and reproachful. Jenny explains fiercely that it’s a “tough world” and they each need “a hustle,” in order never to be poor again.
Monty and his girls need a miracle. This is underlined by a brief scene where he attends church with his boss Willie (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and hears a sermon about the “due season” God will deliver. Monty fights back tears and high-fives Willie, regaining his faith and determination to fight the evil Jenny. His “miracle” then takes the form of his erstwhile second-job employer, high-powered lawyer Julia (Gabrielle Union). Though she’s recently fired him as her driver, Monty asks her to represent him in court. “I need a bulldog like you,” he says, by way of a compliment.
She says no (er, her firm charges $500 an hour), then shows up in the courtroom anyway. She has her reasons, namely, her blind date the night before turns out to have a pregnant wife who comes to yell at him with a small boy in the backseat. Apparently, the child’s announcement that Julia is a “tramp” is enough to make her recognize that Monty is a worthy black man who actually wants to take care of his kids. In the courtroom, Julia listens to some back-and-forthing between Jenny and Monty (who informs the judge that Joe “gave my daughter weed to sell in school!” only to be told he has no evidence, the children’s potential testimony apparently counting for nothing). With that, Julia offers to represent the girls.
All this to set up her romance with Monty. For the film is, at last, rather disinterested in his daughters, and more focused on Julia’s own status as a “daddy’s little girl.” Hers wanted a boy, trained her up to be a partner in his own firm, and is now retired to Florida. She can’t find a boyfriend (despite energetic efforts by her catty, incessantly unhelpful girlfriends, played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Terri J. Vaughn), which makes her a familiar Perry-style woman. Beautiful, successful, and disappointed, she needs “a man.” While her friends say she only needs “to get laid,” Julia knows she wants something else, which she conveniently explains on her cell phone while Monty’s driving her car: she wants someone “who knows how to hold me, rub my feet, and make me feel safe.”
Julia’s eventual realization that Monty is that man comes by way of an especially circuitous, contrived route. Worried that her friends think she’s “sleeping around with the help” (their we-are-so-shallow manner parallels Jenny’s I’m-a-ho performance), Julia finally sees — again — that the most important thing about Monty is that he treats his daughters “like princesses.”
While this is a typical lesson learned in a Tyler Perry movie, Daddy’s Little Girls has stretched out his formula somewhat. Certainly, Monty and Julia are brilliant compared to, say, a Norbit and his waify girlfriend. But they don’t need to be set off by egregious, offensive, unthoughtful, and tedious villains in order to be brilliant. Jenny and Joe don’t help to make a case for the “good men” and “strong women” they seem to oppose. They only drag everyone down.