Is it ever too late for a second act? When Doug Block's mother Mina unexpectedly dies and his father, Mike, weds his old secretary a few months later, the documentarian struggles to understand his parent's 54-year marriage. Were they in love? Happy? After discovering his mother's journals diaries she kept for nearly 35 years the filmmaker finds himself in a quandary: Should he read her innermost thoughts? Would they be enlightening or a Pandora's Box?
Though his initial reticence comes dangerously close to navel-gazing, 51 Birch Street (his family's home address) is a reflective, compassionate and occasionally startling study of marriage and the generational divide.
While there's danger that autobiographical documentaries will wallow in self-indulgence and sentimentality and this film has plenty of both Block taps a few powerful truths about child-parent relationships by asking this: How much do we know about our parents and how much do we want to know?
Once Block overcomes his neurotic need to justify invading his mother's privacy, Block uncovers the frustrations, compromises and concessions that often accompanied marriages in the 1950s, when personal happiness was rarely a priority. Mina's diaries reveal a person Block never knew; a flawed and sexually unfulfilled woman profoundly unhappy in her suburban life and disconnected from her husband.
Early on Block muses, "When it comes to your parents, maybe ignorance is bliss." The sentiment gets revised as he uncovers the depths of dissatisfaction and self-obsession that gripped Mina and the impact it had on her marriage. Though he initially casts his tight-lipped and seemingly emotionless father as the failed spouse, his mother's written confessionals reveal surprising truths. In sharing incendiary portions of his mother's diaries, Block stirs both compassion and understanding for ever-stoic dad, who, for much of the film, refuses to speak ill of the past or the dead. Gradually the emotional jigsaw pieces of his mother's life fall into place.
51 Birch Street challenges the notion that "ignorance is bliss" by suggesting children only come into their own when they recognize their parents as individuals and accept their flaws, problems and failures.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at 9:30 p.m. Friday, April 13, at 4 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 14, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 15.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].