Personal Documentary maker Doug Block runs into a serious problem with his latest familial examination. Though almost entirely behind the camera, the director is symbolically front and center throughout the movie, which is where the trouble starts. While opinions about personality generally shouldn't affect one's reading of a movie, (in the best cases) if you virtually cast your real self as a leading character, it's hard to avoid attracting that type of attention. Inevitably, you'll find yourself either liking or disliking Block. His painfully revealing work guarantees it, in fact, and I'm betting the majority of viewers won't be taking a shine to the intrusive, manipulative director. Not one bit.
Block, an inveterate family-movies kind of guy, chooses the metaphorical eve of his daughter's departure for college to examine what it means to let your kids grow up and move on. It's a trenchant conceit, a fairly universal one, and one probably better looked at with one's family and friends ... maybe a therapist ... but not necessarily through the lens of the camera, for sharing with the world. Had Block maybe made greater effort to search for answers within, rather than simply hounding his wife and kids, his ultimately facile and maudlin conclusions might go down easier. As it is, The Kids Grow Up looks cold, easy and cheap. Where crafters of fiction labor intensively to create situations that feel real and relatable, Block appears to put most of his effort into the editing suite, stitching together a narrative of his family life that manages to feel artificial and invasive.
Through footage of Block's daughter Lucy, from the time she was a young child to her blossoming into a hot college gal, Block is there, asking her (and Block's wife) to make sense of it all. Lucy at first is an adorable moppet loving the attention of the camera. It's clear why Block is so enamored of Lucy. But as time goes on she grows tired of all the attention. By Block's own hand, he weaves a tale that starts out innocently, yet becomes more and more manipulative and exploitive as years go on. He wears his subjects down with the lens, his voice full of smarm as teenage Lucy cries and begs him to turn the damn camera off. "I know it's hard," he tells her - less as an assurance and more as a reminder - while he continues to roll. His desire to understand everything going on with Lucy, up to and including her romance with a French heartthrob, begins to resemble emotional incest more than anything else.
Lucy's not the only subject/victim, though, as Block also lovingly details his wife's episode of severe depression upon Lucy's impending departure. Block patronizes his family from behind the lens. You wonder if they know punters such as myself will be watching them at their most raw. It's all quite engaging in a queasy way, and Block doesn't spare himself from the depredations of his compulsive desire to expose things. It's just that - after Block tosses out his sadly sentimental conclusions about "all the conversations lost" - you wind up feeling sorry for him and his family. Incidentally, those conversations aren't lost, I just sat through them myself, but maybe Block wouldn't feel their loss so much if he'd had more of those conversations without a video camera in hand.
The Kids Grow Up is thoroughly compelling, expertly assembled, and pretty aggravating. Whether Block all along intended to make a Proustian statement about memory and loss, or whether he kind of came up with the idea after the fact, his artifact feels too personal, too calculated, and too exploitive of his family to rise much above navel-gazing writ large. It's hard to look away, but the payoff's not there.