The worm of mortality is gnawing its way through “The Kids Grow Up,” Doug Block’s very first-person docu, which masquerades as an intimate family portrait but is really about time itself — how we can’t stop it, save it or relive it, despite all the photographic equipment at our disposal. Wide smallscreen airing will follow small theatrical, with strongest response to come from auds that recognize themselves, or maybe their fathers.
A schematic of the male boomer mind, patriarchy division, “The Kids Grow Up” is ostensibly about the willowy, college-bound Lucy Block, whose documaking father has been shooting her since birth: At age 4, we see a Lucy still thrilled to be filmed, so she can watch herself “on television”; by age 5, she’s already developed the withering look that frequently greets the appearance of her father’s camera. As Dad says in the voiceover that informs the entire film, Lucy “had the misfortune to be born at the infancy of the commercially available camcorder.” It’s a birthright she’s not entirely sure she’s happy about.
Block’s aware his shooting is oppressive. But he also knows he’s been making this movie for his daughter’s entire life, and he doesn’t want to screw it up (even though there are times when he considers abandoning the project). The love-hate relationship between Lucy and her father’s camera, and the conflicted feelings Block has toward the idea that his only child would one day grow up and leave — not for the moon, for God’s sake, just college — brings a muted humor to the whole undertaking. Obsession, compulsion and fear are all part of “The Kids Grow Up,” which is occasionally a less-than-pleasant reminder of the goofy way we can act even while we think we’re being sane.
Block turned his camera on his family for his last feature docu, “51 Birch Street,” which suggested that his long-married parents had been mismatched, and victims of their era’s mores and conventions. Everyone has parents, of course, so there were few people who couldn’t relate to “51 Birch Street.” But even though the strongest response to “The Kids Grow Up” will likely come from fathers, or daughters, who’ve found themselves in its particular circumstances, the director — via a nakedly honest examination of what is essentially helpless love — taps into something that transcends generation, or gender.
The voice of reason in “Kids” is Block’s wife, Marjorie Silver, who already had a son, Josh Silver (another important presence here) when she and Block married 25 years or so earlier, and she seems to occupy a kind of real world in which Block is only a tourist.
While her husband typifies his generation’s parent-as-pal approach to children, Silver is far more reasoned, rational and adult, and when Block trains his lens on her, she sort of lets him have it — about his Peter Pan complex, his sky-is-falling perspective about Lucy leaving, and what seems to be a lack of enthusiasm, and a painful cluelessness, about the prospect of having his wife to himself after 18 years. That Block leaves these moments in the film shows he’s cognizant of what it all means. Still, it takes a certain amount of nerve to let oneself look so bad.
The genre of personal documentary is required to transcend its immediate surroundings, and “The Kids Grow Up” does, partly because it’s so frequently funny. After a junior high school year in France, Lucy returns with her first serious boyfriend, a Gallic annoyance named Roman. Block speaks no French, but he hates Roman fluently, and we kind of agree. Less funny is a later moment in which a despairing Lucy tells her father how she feels about being filmed. “I hate it,” she says. “I’m sorry,” he says, and yet the camera never stops. Block’s obsessive love for his daughter wars with his compulsion not to miss a moment of her on camera; what the movie asks, however obliquely, is whether living life through a lens is the same thing as living.
Production values are good; the quality of the visuals is mixed, given the situations and various years over which Block filmed, but Maeve O’Boyle’s editing is near-miraculous.