In reviewing this documentary for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote of its writer, director and editor, Doug Block: “He is thoughtful, fair minded and serious, with enough self-deprecating humor to make his company, as off-camera narrator and occasional on-camera presence, easy and pleasant.” I very much doubt Janet Maslin would have written anything close to that. Indeed, I doubt if any woman would write any assessment of Mr. Block as an off-camera presence that did not include the word “creep”—used as a noun.

At some point, as his daughter’s departure for college approached, Doug Block decided to take his camcorder into very significant corners of her life, and his wife’s, in order to better deal with the panic he was feeling over the nest emptying. His daughter, Lucy, is his only child, and he has clearly been devoted to and not inappropriately fascinated by her since birth—filming, in the way every parent does, the cute and no-so-dear moments, the precious everyday as well as the significant moments in her growing up. Where he departs from the normal parent recording is when he pries—as when he forces the 10-year-old Lucy to confront questions she’s not ready to consider. (At one point she looks at the camera and says, “I’m only 10!”) The worst is yet to come.

He trains his camera on Lucy during her last year of living at home until she tells him it is his way of not dealing with her leaving, and until she cries because it feels like exactly what it is: an invasion of privacy. And though he says he understands, he does not put the camera down for way too long after he agrees that she has been abused by this relentless peering into her face in order to ease his own heart.

Is it cruel or necessary to see his wife, Marjorie, in bed suffering from a major depressive episode—one in which she later admits she was haunted by suicide ideation?  Is it appropriate to ask Lucy on camera whether her mother’s becoming a stranger to her in this way frightens her? Is it kind to turn on the camera at the moment when Lucy and her boyfriend (who will be going back to France soon) are experiencing the pain of what they must do in order to move on in their lives—namely, separate themselves from one another by not speaking as much, not having it be the lovely way it’s been? The young man cries as he talks about his feelings and Lucy is close to sobbing. This viewer had a very hard time not wishing Mr. Block and his camera would show up in the theater so she could bash him on the head with it.

My friend and I asked the same question of one another at dinner. Why did the mother and daughter stand for it? The only answer we could come up with was that they knew it was Doug Block’s last chance for a theater-worthy film. (He apparently had some buzz with 51 Birch Street, the documentary he made about his parents.) And like most women, they sacrificed part of themselves to give him what they understood was a chance to think well of himself.

I found The Kids Grow Up very hard to watch. Perhaps that means it is an effective documentary. Or perhaps it means it should never have been made.

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  • Tracey November 24, 2010 at 7:04 am

    Interesting thought that for a documentary to be effective it is often hard to watch. Does that mean it shouldn’t be made? With the growth of reality TV, people have a great desire to see the insides of other people’s lives, not just the veneer. Would it be as bad if the story was in print rather than a video intruding on the real time events as they happened?

    Thanks for a provocative post raising a question about how much of our lives is appropriate to memorialize and share with the world, and how much we will do for the people we love.