At one point in Doug Block’s latest intrusive, narcissistic documentary-cum-home-movie, the teenage daughter whose life he’s recording bursts into tears and tells him she’s pissed at his constant violations of her privacy. “I hate it,” Lucy Block snaps between sobs. “Instead of experiencing me going away to college, you’re trying to film it.” He awkwardly apologizes, explaining that it might be hard now, but the footage is something they’ll have for the future. And he keeps filming, and they do have something for the future: further proof of his obsession with documenting at any cost, even if the act itself ruins whatever moment he’s trying to capture.
Block’s last film, 51 Birch Street, documented his uneasy fascination with his parents’ marriage, and his attempts to explore it after his mother’s death. The Kids Grow Up is similar cinematic therapy with the camera as a relentless shield between Block and unpleasant emotions. Bleakly facing empty-nest syndrome as his only child heads to college on the opposite end of the country (“For some reason, I don’t want to be too close to home,” she says in the opening shots), Block interviews his siblings and father about their own parenthood, seeks advice and reflection from his wife, and pores nostalgically over past images of Lucy. Several of his sequences from her earlier childhood echo the crying scene—slouching on a couch before her high-school prom, Lucy wearily tells him “I’m tired of being filmed,” and he zooms in on her face, answering “Yeah, I know, but these are memories that will last a lifetime.” At other times, he captures remarkable moments, like eager child Lucy proclaiming after getting her ears pierced, “I feel like my life has just changed.” Or the jarring cuts between child-Lucy and teen-Lucy, which show how Block sees both simultaneously when he looks at her. Or Lucy and her French boyfriend weeping as they attempt to explain how they feel about parting to go to college. These sequences are riveting, though they feel less authentic for having been orchestrated for the camera.
That’s the problem with Block’s approach in general. Whether stiffly narrating himself (“I find myself wandering the neighborhood, trying to envision a carefree future, unburdened by parental responsibility.”), conducting manipulative interviews, or fussily ordering Lucy to take up the camera herself, he comes across as though he’s trying to control and define the world around him, to reshape it into a comprehensible form and come to terms with it. But his world consists of other people who frequently resent and resist his efforts and assert themselves, and the more he fights back to shape their narrative, the more insensitive and manic he appears. Watching that tug-of-war feels like the worst kind of voyeurism. By experiencing Block’s films, we aren’t merely witnessing his neurosis, we’re abetting and validating it.