Sometimes we have to do things we don't like. Maybe for you this includes humoring your father while he documents every minute of your day with a video camera. For most of my fellow writers, it entails seeing and then reviewing stuff like Grown-Ups. For me, as a documentary critic, it means bucking up and watching Doug Block's latest film, The Kids Grow Up, despite my immense distaste for his self-indulgent style and subject matter. I hadn't planned on including the film in my Silverdocs viewing and admit I only forced myself after walking out of something else, but what I came away with was at least an appreciation for this as a follow-up and compliment to 51 Birch Street and the qualification to honestly recommend it to at least fans of that earlier doc, of which I disappointingly know there are plenty.
Like Block, who is more of a home movie maker than a journalistic documentarian, I often explore things about myself that I don't quite understand. While he has made films in order to investigate what it's like to lose a parent and now what it's like to let go of a child, I attempted to work out my hatred of first-person films that serve as family therapy not by seeing them but by attending a Silverdocs conference titled Documentary Ethics Inside the Family. It was a fitting panel given that along with The Kids Grow Up, there were three other subjective docs of this sort (Monica & David, Family Affair and Beyond This Place) playing the festival, yet I unfortunately left the event no more tolerant of such narcissistic and nepotistic works. If anything, I was more annoyed at Block for claiming that his films are not made to be personal therapy but they end up being personally therapeutic. Surely, the latter is always to be expected and must somewhat drive him as a filmmaker.
So I found myself reluctantly sitting in the auditorium for the film itself. As with 51 Birch Street, in The Kids Grow Up Block mixes decades worth of home movie footage with stuff shot specific to the project at hand. This time it's the year or so leading up to daughter Lucy's departure to college. In that frame, Dad makes his seemingly obnoxious rounds -- once again there are plenty of moments in which Lucy and Doug's wife, Marjorie, appear or state they're annoyed -- documenting school visits, graduation, parties and even Marjorie's severe depression, which may be related to the sadness of letting go of a child. Throughout, Block narrates his thoughts and feelings about the experience in a way that's more personal essay than memoir.
Back when it was titled "Almost Gone," The Kids was envisioned as a companion piece, if not officially a sequel, to 51 Birch Street. Fans of the earlier film will no doubt be glad to revisit with Block's father, Mike, and other familiar "characters." In a way, though, it opens a bit too similarly, addressing the child-loss issue as if Block's daughter had died rather than was merely set to leave home. And it features a few too many references to and repeated footage from the prior film. Put together, though, both films work as bookends to a part of life, those middle-age years when you're dealing with loss at two ends -- though one is obviously more permanent and tragic. I figure I'll relate more to the pair when I'm older; at the moment both my parents are alive and I have no children. From what I can tell, Block's biggest fans are those who've been through or are going through what he's documented from his own life.
I can't say I enjoyed The Kids, yet I also didn't hate it like I did Birch Street, which went too far in my opinion with its invasion of privacy. I kept expecting Block to reveal that he was reading Lucy's diary, as he did his mother's after her passing, but fortunately he did not go that far (at least not on camera). If anything I was surprised at his liberalness -- encouraged by Marjorie -- when Lucy's French boyfriend comes to stay and is permitted to sleep in Lucy's room. Dad stereotypes are squashed as Block shows more tolerance of his teen daughter potentially having sex in his home than of his mother having an adulterous affair many years ago. One of the issues constantly addressed in Block's films is his own difficulty growing up, and in that moment he appears to have grown since his last work.
But should I think The Kids a better film because its maker grew as a person? Actually I get more weary of Block's films the more they end up about him. It's hard to care about a character who is with very few exceptions just the lens of the camera. And there are more instances this time around of Block questioning the point and worth of the film he's making, wondering whether he should continue or abandon it. The fact that he plows on is definitely for his own self-therapy, despite what he says to the contrary. Or, maybe there are viewers who at that moment who say to themselves, "yes, continue; this is important."
Not that a documentary need be important, as I was reminded so often at Silverdocs. Sometimes they can simply have an engaging story that may or may not also have a relative cause. After my struggle with The Kids, I also forced myself into Monica & David, which I expected to be both too much about its filmmaker's relationship to the content and therefore too heavy-handed in its promotion of disabled adult-related causes. In actuality, it is hardly a first-person documentary and I'm unsure if it even matters that Alexandra Codina informs us at the beginning of her film that one of the eponymous figures is her cousin. I don't know that it would change the film at all if -- like, say, October Country -- the audience wasn't informed of such familial subjectivity. There is also not much in the form of a message, other than to possibly communicate the normalcy of people with Down syndrome, and it isn't overbearing.
The documentary follows its characters, a man and woman each with Down's, through their first year of marriage. They seek work and responsibility, move into their (sort of) own apartment, have arguments, as any new couple does, and most importantly love each other, day by day. Like Block's film, though, Monica & David is partly about a parent dealing with her daughter growing up and wanting to be more independent. While concentration is on the marital narrative and the struggles of Monica and David to make a life for themselves as a separate unit, Monica's mother is also a very big part of the film as their primary caretaker. It is her conflict, through which she seems to want to let go but also can't bear to, that really holds the film together.
The other stuff is cute, but I left thinking more about the difficulty of parenting an intellectually disabled adult and the fine line between protecting and sheltering. Thank goodness we get to see Maria Elena occasionally working through this conflict onscreen rather than from the personal protection and shelter of a camera.
The Kids Grow Up, which received a Special Jury Mention at Silverdocs, will be distributed theatrically in October followed by a run on HBO. Monica & David will also air on HBO this fall.