'51 Birch Street': Throwing Open the Blinds on a Family

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

The genre of first-person, no-holds-barred confessional documentaries is fraught with dangers. There are masters of the form -- filmmakers such as Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner, whose films "Sherman's March" and "Nobody's Business," respectively, define its gold standard. But then there are the myriad imitators and self-indulgent auteurs who simply turn a camera on themselves or their crazy families and expect the rest of us to care.

As "51 Birch Street" opens, with filmmaker Doug Block narrating as we watch home movies of his childhood on Long Island, it seems perilously prone to such solipsism. (The title refers to the address where he grew up.) Like so many baby boomers, Block is seeking to unpack the emotional baggage of his parents' marriage, the better to understand his own relationships at midlife. ("51 Birch Street" made its cable debut on Cinemax earlier this week.)

But with breathtaking speed, "51 Birch Street" takes a sudden turn, and what seemed on its face to be just another middle-class family with intimacy issues becomes a microcosm, not just of families everywhere, but an entire era. To synopsize even briefly would be unfair to "51 Birch Street," which unfolds like an epistolary psychological mystery. Suffice it to say that very little about or in this movie -- which has been a favorite on the festival circuit for the past year and a half -- is as simple as it seems.

The armature of Block's narrative is the copious diaries that his late mother, Mina, kept for more than 30 years of her 54-year marriage. A passionate writer, Mina poured her heart into the journals, which read like the dreams and dissatisfactions of the Feminine Mystique generation, and Block is shocked by much of what he reads, especially Mina's unhappiness with her marriage. When he finds his mother's best friend, Natasha, for clarification, she explains that Mina was writing at a time when women were beginning to ask whether there wasn't more to life than keeping the house clean. "That's when houses got dirty," Natasha says dryly.

Meanwhile Mike, Doug's hard-working father, has remained a distant figure, especially compared with Mina, the charismatic and compelling center of her children's lives. "I don't usually go back and review past items," Mike says awkwardly when Doug invites him to reflect on family dynamics. But as Block tenaciously teases out the buried emotions of 30 years -- and copes with one whopper of a plot twist -- we see his relationship with his father morph into something wholly unexpected.

Block, an experienced documentarian (his 1998 film "Home Page" was nominated for an Emmy), does an outstanding job of walking the knife-edge between personal and self-absorbed, as he interviews his sisters, his wife and even a young rabbi; it doesn't hurt that all his subjects -- even the diffident Mike -- are unusually smart, self-aware and articulate. The only gratuitous element is when the filmmaker visits an author and therapist who specializes in fathers and sons; their sessions together offer little more than Dr. Phil-like cliches.

But those moments can't detract from the emotional drama that propels "51 Birch Street" from one shocking revelation to another. The highly pitched melodrama that roils the otherwise placid surface of the Blocks' life gives the movie its spark, but its enduring power lies in its depiction of Mina, who as her friend Natasha observes, finally only wanted to be known.

Block has afforded her that privilege in a lively, controversial but finally deeply compassionate portrait of an ordinary extraordinary woman.

51 Birch Street (90 minutes, at the Avalon) is not rated. It contains references to sexuality, drug use and adult themes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company