It’s hard to fault Doug Block for being too attached to the past. He’s got an archive of footage drawing him back, and a portable DV posterity-preserver complicating his present. “Don’t you want to rewind and go back to the fourth grade?” a fellow father asks in Block’s The Kids Grow Up, a rhetorical question that the documentarian makes literal with cued-up footage of his once-fourth-grade daughter hopscotching for the camera.
While his last film, the quietly revelatory 51 Birch Street, was an investigation into his parents’ rocky marriage, his latest is more like a confession, with fatherly anxiety over Lucy’s impending high school graduation serving as the central narrative and conflict. The bewildered, ambivalent son of the previous film now reluctantly contemplates middle-aged dad-dom. Seemingly modest but stealthily ambitious, Block’s feature-length home movies have a way of spiraling outward just as he’s drilling inward, of becoming profoundly universal when most nakedly personal. And despite their candor, the Blocks are less exhibitionistic than welcoming. They make for very dear company.
Block first shows Lucy as a little girl in a pink ballerina outfit, a vision both iconic and particular. Society offers plenty of advice for raising a child, he says via voiceover, but not for letting one go. Cut to Lucy as a tall, dark-haired beauty touring a college campus. Through Doug’s eyes, we see her as that teeny ballerina grown up, but it’s also apparent that she’s a compelling adult whom the filmmaker can’t fully recognize. His is a subjective eye that invites, from the very outset, our objective and critical participation. The more he trains his camera on Lucy—or on his wife, Marjorie, or his father, Mike—the more he reveals about his own obsessions and hang-ups. When he permits Lucy to bunk up with her visiting French boyfriend, he watchfully films their closed door. “What’s wrong with hypocrisy?” he defiantly asks.
Lucy’s an only child, but there’s a plural noun in the film’s title for a reason. In fact, Doug often comes across as the least mature person in the room. Everyone—from Marjorie to his stepson and sisters—lectures him (at his prompting) on his unhealthy attachment to the past. He’s also a consistently inept interviewer. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” he asks Lucy over and over through the years, to which she often responds with a weary eye-roll. But Doug the enervating character and strangely imperceptive narrator is a great asset for Doug Block the filmmaker. By not having any answers, his first-person filmmaking becomes all about the asking, the searching. He may aim to capture, but, as evidenced by the film’s elegantly digressive construction, what he really does is complicate.
The flipside of Doug’s infatuation with Lucy, which isn’t directly explored but rather left for the viewer to ponder with every loving frame, is his ambivalence about Marjorie. He clearly dreads the prospect of Lucy leaving the nest, but he’s also anxious about sharing it with his wife alone. In many ways the secret star and conscience of the film, Marjorie’s presence is always felt, a patient witness to Doug’s public processing. Very much like its predecessor, The Kids Grow Up is ostensibly about parenthood and memory, but is most revealing about modern marriage—the elephant that’s always in the room, the mystery that can’t be solved, a shared past that offers little direction for the future. You know that Doug won’t find resolution through his lens, yet you keep hoping all the same.