Inevitably, children grow up and fly the coop. In his latest documentary, Doug Block (Home Page) contemplates how certain parents, namely he and his wife Marjorie, deal with that fact. Almost as inevitably, The Kids Grow Up is more about the act of filmmaking than parenting, since Block's approach entails piecing together seventeen years of home movies he's taken of his only child, Lucy. The absorbingly bittersweet result ranks as one of the best non-fiction films of the year. Its theatrical performance should be enhanced by the critical acclaim showered on Block's 2006 companion piece 51 Birch Street.
In that deeply personal documentary, Block examined his parents' outwardly normal, inwardly busted marriage. Here, he exposes his relationships with his daughter and wife. There's no hint he mounted either project out of a need for self-aggrandizement. In the case of Kids however, narcissism does rear its head. Among Block's motivations is a compulsion to sort through his feelings with a camera and to create a special, perhaps more controlling, role for himself in a routine domestic drama that typically plays out sans camera.
Facing an impending empty nest and the desire to utilize the footage he has shot of lanky, raven-haired Lucy since she was a tyke, Doug decides to chronicle her final year of high school, as she prepares to graduate from Manhattan's Friends Seminary and head off to college on the West Coast. He interviews other family members - his father, his two older sisters - as well as Marjorie, but his camera is most often aimed at Lucy. Block deftly juxtaposes snippets of a precocious youngster basking in her dad's attention with scenes of a smart, self-possessed and somewhat sullen teenager who's manifestly annoyed that her dad has decided to intrude on her life at this juncture. He does seem genuinely in danger of pushing Lucy away with his lens; though he's aware of that risk and tries to be sensitive, her discomfort becomes ours. Teens are reluctant enough to communicate with their parents. Shove a camera in their face and they're sure to shut down. On the other hand, don't members of Lucy's generation expect to be captured on film? If anyone can take the ordeal in stride, it's a hip New Yorker with an accomplished filmmaker for a father.
Regardless, and not surprisingly, their father-daughter dynamic is a Freudian's delight, something not lost on Marjorie. Through words and body language, she expresses the audience's concern. Is Block's attachment to Lucy unnatural, or at the very least excessive? Answer: Yes. He's jealous of her French boyfriend - whom she met during a year abroad and who visits for at least two five-week stretches - and Block can come off as needy and immature. But, allowing for the abnormality of him wielding a camera, his concern doesn't seem abnormal. In fact, while he's forthcoming in many ways, as a dad he plays his emotional cards very close to his vest. He never confesses to anything most fathers (which, true enough, doesn't include his own) don't feel. So ultimately, while there's no lack of frankness to Kids, it's more narrowly circumscribed than Block might have us believe.
As Marjorie pinpoints, what's really going on psychologically is that he has a Peter Pan complex. What pains him about Lucy's departure is that it signals his own aging and inevitable dotage. Marjorie, who criticizes Block for his ambivalence toward his newborn step-grandson (fathered by her son Josh, who is fourteen years older than Lucy), sees this project as driven by middle-aged angst. And yet, the stress of Lucy's leaving takes a much more pronounced toll on her. In the movie's most dramatic development, Marjorie falls into a deep depression and must take a leave of absence from her job as a law professor. She has a history of such episodes, although it's her first in thirteen years.
Marjorie's pre-partum withdrawal underscores how these two parents, and not parenting rites in general, are the real subject of The Kids Grow Up. The intrusion of Block's camera, while symptomatic of his own issues and while ably (he's no slouch as a handheld cinematographer) documenting a difficult event in the life of a family, prevents us from getting to know Lucy or his relationship with her. Whereas Birch revealed much about his parent's generation through their marriage, Kids isn't focused on the youth of today. It looks inward at a marriage and a family unit. Lucy the individual is almost forgotten.
This raises the philosophical question of whether the act of filming detracts from living in the present. Could Block really have as close and rich a relationship with Lucy (or Marjorie for that matter) as he claims while pointing a camera in their faces? We can't know the answer and should refrain from passing moral judgments on the quality of these bonds. But it's fruitful to wonder whether he's as reliable a narrator as he claims to be. Block exhibits a kind of naïveté on screen that can be both endearing and irritating; he's a cool, laid-back customer most of the time, even when he's fretting or broaching a sensitive subject. Yet if he's as traumatized as he says he is, it doesn't show. He's as stoic a father and husband as he is in-control as an artist.
Sensing this, some may find The Kids Grow Up too pre-meditated. Honest if not all that revealing, it implies that a smooth movie arc takes precedence over fulfilling lives. If so, one could argue we've reached the limits of personal documentaries, because the film is at once highly personal but not personal enough to illuminate universal truths. Against this view, I'd suggest that Doug Block's brilliance lies in his ability to make the ordinary seem profound and the profound seem utterly natural. Seen in that light, it was well worth risking his marriage and his bond with his daughter to make The Kids Grow Up, much as it proved rewarding for all concerned that he jeopardized his relationship with his family to excavate his parents' marriage in 51 Birch Street.
Distributor: Shadow Distribution
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Doug Block
Running time: 90 min
Release date: October 29 NY, November 12 LA