As improvements in digital cameras and editing technology lower the bar to becoming a documentary filmmaker, a new category of documentary is emerging that will soon need a name of its own. These are films in which the recorded material says something that the finder may not have intended it to say, as the complexity of the story that emerges on-screen outstrips the director’s ability or willingness to think that story through.
Catfish, the real-life tale of an online romance derailed by the discovery of a deception, falls under this heading. If the movie succeeds (as I think it does), it’s because of the mystery the filmmakers stumble onto in spite of themselves. The Kids Grow Up (Shadow Distribution), directed by Doug Block, works like Catfish in reverse. Here we see a man trying to turn his own life into a mystery while it’s happening and alienating the people he loves in the process. Block intended this movie as a loving portrait of his relationship with his daughter. Instead, it’s a reflection, and not always a kind one, of the man behind the camera.
The Kids Grow Up begins with the image of a little girl, maybe 5, twirling in a tutu in her living room. It’s Lucy Block, the filmmaker’s only child, who at this age seems comfortable and happy performing for her father. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, she has a confident answer ready: “Drive an ice-cream truck.” But Lucy as a high-school senior—the year of her life this movie documents—has less settled career plans and a very different on-camera demeanor. All those years of being followed around by a nosy filmmaker father have made her wary of being loomed over on the sofa with questions like “So what can’t I film?” (Flashback to a younger Lucy sitting in the bleachers at a school athletic event; as she sees her father across the gym, her voice can be clearly head above the din: “Turn it off!”)
Doug’s wife Marjorie, a law professor who seems to function as her introspective husband’s more grounded counterpoint, diagnoses him with Peter Pan syndrome: “In most ways, you don’t want to grow up.” When his grown stepson has his first child, Block refuses the nickname “Gramps”; he prefers, as he says only half-jokingly, to be called “Uncle Doug.” Lucy’s yearlong college application process provides a chance for Block to ruminate on his own resistance to letting his daughter go. During the course of that year, a lot of things happen. Block’s step-grandson is born and grows; Lucy’s French boyfriend comes to the United States to stay with the family for two extended visits; and Marjorie undergoes an episode of clinical depression.
In his last film, 51 Birch Street (2006), Block investigated his parents’ long and unhappy marriage to devastating effect. Part of what made that film so powerful was Block’s courage to keep filming even as his subjects told truths that he didn’t want to hear and that dismantled his childhood myths. But when he uses that same method not on his parents but his child, Block’s intrusiveness seems inappropriate. Many of his attempts to interview Lucy are difficult to watch. “Do you have happy memories of your childhood?” he asks her at around the age of 10. “I am a child,” she responds. “This is my childhood.” A few years later, when she sees the camera come out, Lucy stares into it with open hostility.
Toward the end of the film, as she’s about to leave for college, Lucy weeps in frustration as she begs her father to leave her alone. “I know this is hard,” he says gently, but for an uncomfortably long moment he won’t turn off the camera. Block is far from oblivious to the fact that the daughter whose mysteries he seeks to plumb shuts down whenever he walks in the room. Indeed, Lucy’s resistance to the project emerges as one of its major themes—but Block tends to treat his daughter’s protestations primarily as potentially valuable material. To his credit, Block is fairly respectful of his wife’s privacy during her depression. Sure he may hover over her with the camera as she lies listlessly in bed, but by Block family standards, that’s actually pretty reasonable. When his wife asks him to shut off the camera, he at least listens—a fact that Lucy, watching this film, would be justified in finding aggravating.
I wanted to like this movie so much more than I do, especially given my enthusiasm for 51 Birch Street, but The Kids Grow Up can be maddeningly self-indulgent. Block’s omnipresent camera does manage to capture some remarkable moments, especially in his conversations with the younger and less pissed-off Lucy. He’s also a skilled editor, finding correspondences between the child and the young woman in a way that at times recalls the masterful Up Series (though without that series’ interest in political or social questions, as The Kids Grow Up takes place in a comfortable bourgeois bubble). Doug Block clearly loves his daughter to pieces, and despite her irritation and at times grief at his pathological need to record their life together, Lucy seems to love him, too. But watching the two of them squabble over whether he has the right to film her leaves the audience wondering whether we have the right to watch.