Ostensibly, Doug Block's highly personal documentary 51 Birch Street asks "How well do you really know your parents?" But really, its focus is a much smaller question: "Can director Doug Block cope with the things he learned about his parents, and will he be able to get over his own squeamishness and decide for himself whether he really wants to learn more?" Ultimately, the film reveals more about Block than about his private, remote mother and father, and while the revelations are queasily fascinating, à la Capturing The Friedmans or Stevie, the joys of watching a man carry out his own therapy onscreen are fairly limited.
Block establishes his own character early on by filming his uncomfortable mother from the bottom of a staircase; she self-consciously protests that he "destroyed trust" by filming "from below," which he promised not to do, and she hides behind a door, telling him he can't use the footage he just shot. Obviously, he did. And the wheedling pursuit of her that follows readily reveals his film-over-family priorities, and the way he distances himself from his kin by hiding behind the camera and his agenda.
That holds true as he begins his project, interviewing and analyzing his folks, and it continues as his mother suddenly dies and his 83-year-old father Mike announces his intent to marry his former secretary Kitty and move to Florida. Obviously stung, Block follows Mike around with a camera, asking vague questions about the situation, capturing his own passive-aggression and discomfort as much as his father's bland geniality. Later, he self-righteously interviews his siblings, encouraging them to express their disapproval of Mike and Kitty's marriage. Then he begins poring through his mother's diaries, digging up and micro-analyzing evidence of marital dissatisfaction. Throughout the film, he seems flabbergasted yet mesmerized by the evidence of cracks in his folks' marriage, and ambivalent about whether he wants to know more. Instead of deciding—or just asking his dad for the truth—he circles the issue, seeking validation from his interview subjects and worrying the issue to death. When, in the end, Mike hesitantly turns the camera back on him, Block seems embarrassed, yet delighted. Presumably, somewhere deep in his heart, he knew all along that his neurotic home movie was really all about him.