Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski knows a few who never have.
Letting go is hard to do.
After finding critical success with 51 Birch Street, a documentary about his parents' troubled marriage, filmmaker Doug Block tilts his camera down the ol' family tree and makes a documentary about his daughter.
Facts of the Case
Finishing her last year of high school in New York City, Lucy Block finds her father's camera in her face a fair bit more often than she'd like. On what must be a completely unrelated note, she's hoping to attend college about as far from home as is geographically possible in the lower 48 states, in California. Dad Doug divides the screen time in The Kids Grow Up between interviews with his reluctant daughter, chats with other empty nesters about how to let go of college-age children, and home video footage he's been taking of Lucy since her toddler years.
Of all the familial pairs one could put under the microscope of a personal documentary, prying father plus distant teenage daughter seems the most likely to result in squirm-inducing awkwardness on-screen. Indeed, that turns out to be the case with The Kids Grow Up. In almost all of her interactions with her camera-wielding father during her senior year, Lucy varies between apparent boredom, irritation, dismissiveness, and outright anger. Though viewers will certainly have a range of responses to their on-screen relationship, I personally sympathized with Lucy's attitude. It's hard for most parents to remain emotionally close with their kids throughout their teenage years, and it feels like Doug is dashing any hopes of that by insisting on talking to Lucy about her life with the camera running. He claims at one point, "I'd rather be a good parent than make a good film." I'm sure Doug believes that to be true and maybe it is, but it's the reverse of this statement that came across for me watching The Kids Grow Up. Between his pestering ways with Lucy and his not-as-charming-as-he-thinks resistance to "growing up" himself, Doug is not going to come off as a sympathetic presence in the film for all viewers.
The suspicion that Lucy is not a fully willing participant in this film and the feeling that Doug should not necessarily be making it do not prevent Kids from being a compelling documentary—but they do make it an ethically uncomfortable one to watch. What may decrease one's enjoyment of the film further is the fact that a teenager who comes off as emotionally disconnected and doesn't want to share much of anything personal on-camera is hard to build a great documentary around. Again, I'm not being critical of Lucy herself here: if anything, I respect her for resisting a kind of public vulnerability she clearly doesn't want. But one can only watch an 18-year-old mumble "I don't know" and "I'm tired of being filmed" at her father for so long.
One can also only hear Doug question whether he's ready for his only daughter to leave home, or ask other parents how they dealt with that situation, so many times. While the subject of parents facing the departures of their children is certainly worthy of documentary exploration, it probably could have been explored in 75 minutes more effectively than in 90.
All of the above being said, there are some really wonderful moments in The Kids Grow Up. What the documentary gets right is the bittersweet and all-too-fast nature of the title process. At one point, 18-year-old Lucy snaps at Doug about how she doesn't want to be filmed and as the defeated father retreats from her presence, we cut to footage from Lucy's childhood. Doug is holding the camera, pointing it down at a perhaps 4-year-old Lucy, who has one of her hands in his and the other clutching a stuffed raccoon. She skips along happily in the sunshine, exclaiming in the cutest little voice that she likes to be filmed and likes to see herself on the TV. The juxtaposition of these two pieces of footage show us not just how much Lucy has grown and changed, but how painful some of those changes have been for Doug—a father who long ago saw his daughter delight in the tools of his trade and misses that connection they once shared. In fact, almost any footage of the younger Lucy sparkles on screen, from her passionate declaration on the day of getting her ears pierced, "it feels like my life has just changed!" to her sassy 10-year-old response to Doug's question about remembering her childhood, "I am a child. This is my childhood."
As a fan of autobiographical documentary, I wish I liked The Kids Grow Up more. I also wish I wasn't in the position of needing to criticize the lives of actual people. But that's one of the many perils of choosing to make such a film: you and your loved ones become characters in a real-life narrative and subject to the approval or disapproval of your audience.
Considering that it uses home video dating back to the early '90s, The Kids Grow Up looks and sounds pretty good—probably owing to the fact that the home video was shot by a professional filmmaker. Docurama also provides a hearty helping of special features. A 9-minute interview with Doug Block delves deeper into his motivations for making 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up. His comments about the tension between making a good film and keeping harmony in the family are interesting, as he notes with reluctance, "what works in a film and creates drama is conflict." Five minutes of outtakes give us three cute segments featuring a young Lucy that don't appear in the film. Doug Block also includes a touching 15-minute tribute to a family member who appears in Kids and has since died. Finally, a 12-minute featurette gives us Doug's interviews with his wife and with Lucy after the release of the film, getting their perspective on how it all turned out. Lucy sums things up in a revealing way: "[Leaving] was pretty easy for me. The only thing that made it hard was this movie. It put this tension on our relationship; I really felt that way."
Early in The Kids Grow Up Doug's spirited wife Marjorie, when prodded about her opinion of the film Doug is embarking on, remarks, "Just think: when [Lucy] works all this through in therapy, she can bring the footage with her." She's laughing as she says these words, but she's not kidding. And she's probably right!
Guilty of bugging the family with a camera, then showing the results to a
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