What's most complicated and surprising in Doug Block's The Kids Grow Up is the delicate, remarkably flexible tension between surface and experience.
My role as a parent was very moderate.
-- Mike Block
The camera hovers over the face of a pale and dark-haired child. She looks off-screen, as she hears a question: "So, um, do you have happy memories of your childhood?" She looks directly into the lens. "I am a child," she says. "This is my childhood." Her interlocutor -- who is her father -- persists. "Are you happy?" She pauses. "I don't know."
Lucy Block grew up with cameras watching her. Her father says she had the "misfortune of being born right at the dawn of the consumer camcorder, and she had the double misfortune of having a documentary filmmaker for a father." That would be Doug Block. The film he's made, The Kids Grow Up, is partly about his daughter, partly about parenting, and partly about making a film about all that.
Screening on 20 April at the IFC Center's Stranger Than Fiction (where Block will be on hand for a Q&A), The Kids Grow Up is occasioned by Lucy's imminent departure for college. Feeling unprepared to "let her go," Block points his camera at Lucy's back as the two of them make their way across Stanford's campus. He wonders why her potential choices for school are all on the west coast when they live in New York. "I don’t know," she murmurs, the camera close on her profile. "For some reason, I don’t want to be too close too home."
Anyone whose life has been recorded exhaustively by loving parents might recognize the look on Lucy's face here: patient, appreciative, and vaguely impatient. Her expression is not lost on her father: he's spent much of his life filming and looking at her image. But he's convinced that he has good reasons and intentions that override occasional temporary discomfort. His own childhood was occasionally imaged, as revealed in brief footage here and in his previous film, 51 Birch Street, which tracked Block's long-after the-fact discovery of longstanding troubles in his parents' marriage. The score for both films tends to sentimental piano, his narration for both ranges from confessional to curious to bumptious: repeatedly, he points his camera at family members and asks for answers: what are you feeling? are you happy? what advice do you have for me? And repeatedly, his wife Marjorie, his (late) father Mike, his stepson Josh, his sisters and his daughter all respond, apparently honestly.
What's most complicated and surprising in these family documentaries -- and what becomes more pronounced in The Kids Grow Up -- is the delicate, remarkably flexible tension between surface and experience. Where 51 Birch Street explicitly dug into a past found to be false (or at least hidden to the children in the house), the new movie digs into a past that Block has documented assiduously, as he comes to see himself in new ways, his perspective shaped and reshaped over time and in others' eyes.
In The Kids Grow Up, Marjorie and Doug both face Lucy's leaving with a mix of pride and anxiety. The film records her Marjorie's experience with depression (the first severe bout she's endured in 13 years): she lies in bed, she puts him off, she plays solitaire on her computer. Having been through this before, they know new medication will eventually do its work, but, Block says, "Until then, we live in suspended animation."
Or not quite. He continues to investigate Lucy's childhood while also following her around with his camera now. He's haunted, he says over a clip that looks at first like a tangent, by "an especially long and intimate chat with Lucy on camera, where somehow no sound got recorded." He worries that this silence is a representation of his forgetting, past and future, what he will lose due to not documenting it.
Though Marjorie assures Block that the process of knowing Lucy will go on after she leaves, when she is a fellow adult, he frets over the coming "empty nest," both the lack of access to Lucy and the time he will have with Marjorie without a child in the house. His questions his sisters (whose grown children have already left home), his father, and his stepson, a wonderfully wise new father as the film is in progress. One sister, Karen, tears up as she remembers picking fights with her daughter -- visible here in framed snapshots -- just before she moved out. "I thought, 'This isn't really like me. Why am I being so mean to her?'"
Karen's narrowing view of herself in the past parallels the images we see of Doug with Lucy. He doesn't pick fights, certainly, but he prods and pokes, wants to understand and share her life, remembers fondly her five-year-old self holding his hand or her slightly older self musing that maybe some day she'll be a filmmaker too. He includes a clip of another moment as well, as he asks her yet again to describe herself for him. "I'm not willing to share my life with you," a teenaged version sighs. "You get a big part of it." He pushes from off-screen: what part does he get to see? Exasperated, she tells him what he already knows: "You see the part that you see every day... The part you don’t see is me when I'm not with you. You're not meant to see it."
After Block inserts some footage Lucy has taken of her friends, laughing and laughing, out of her parents' sight, the film goes on to mull this question over, what Block is meant to see, what he imagines or projects, as you may also begin to you're meant to see or can imagine -- all these registers of reactions, the camera capturing moments that would otherwise be fleeting -- would slide into silence or be reshaped in memories. The grace of The Kids Grow Up lies in its repositioning of viewers, so your empathies shift and develop, so you're aware of your own processes of trying to understand.
Block's own understanding is understated. As hard as he tries to be a better parent than his own father, to be open and expressive and attentive, he sees that he has also raised children who can help him toward that end. They also teach him to be a better, more generous son, another kid still growing up.