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Movie Review: 51 Birch Street

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Documentary filmmaker Doug Block begins his cinematic memoir 51 Birch Street with an easy admission: his parents are hardly the people you would expect to be the focus of a documentary. By the end of the film, that sentiment is quite apparent.

The unexceptional couple in an unexceptional suburban home aren't very different from any other middle class coupling. Their marriage faced hard times. The kids weren't always focused on. They stayed together, settling for convention instead of a romantic ideal of happiness. Yet, their story and the universal human truths it exposes turns this unexceptional couple's life into an exceptional, staggering documentary experience.

It's not too long into the documentary that Doug Block's mother dies. Soon after the death — three months later, in fact — his father marries his former secretary, Kittie, and decides to move out of the house he shared with his wife of 54 years. In cleaning out the house, a still-reeling Doug discovers his mother's daily diaries, which she kept for decades.

What Block does next is only natural. The questions of his father's fidelity that were raised by his quick marriage to Kittie and a need to understand Block's own relationship, or lack of one, with his father give Block only one choice: he must read the diaries. The uncertain son always said he shared a special connection with his mother, but he never realized how much that connection blinded him from the realities of the his parents' marriage until reading the diaries.

Block's mother was an unhappy person, yet there are few moments of drama in the Block family life. As Block's sister says, their parents were 1950s parents. It wasn't an easy life, the father marrying a woman too strong for him and the mother, an attractive, urbane woman, wanting more out of her suburban lifestyle. As Block uncovers these unknown facts about his parents' seemingly idyllic life, we are treated to particularly intimate revelations not just about his family, but about ourselves.

I spent much of 51 Birch Street distracted, my head going on little tangents about my own parents and the relationships I have with them. It's a film that resonates so strongly with something so primal (parent-child relationships) that I was glad we weren't treated to sudden, unexpected disclosures from the mother's diaries or the father's mouth. Everything that happens in the film is so expected, makes so much sense, that you can't help but be floored by the simplicity of it all.

Simplicity is important because the most obvious comparison, the 2003 film Tarnation (also a documentary memoir), was an experimental cinematic marvel with a rather exceptional story. While people who liked Tarnation and its tale of a boy growing up with a schizophrenic mother may not be inclined to love 51 Birch Street, both films share a naked honesty we rarely see in films today. And both films, especially the just released 51 Birch Street DVD, are essential viewing for fans of film, documentary and memoir alike.

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About Daniel J. Stasiewski