Movie Review: 51 Birch Street

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
Growing up, we don't really think of our parents as men and women with lives separate from our own. We think of them in relation to ourselves and to the other members of the family. It's not until we're well into our twenties that most of us even consider that they are full human beings. In Doug Block's personal documentary "51 Birch Street," he asks whether he really wants to know his parents. Named for the address of the modest home in Port Washington, New York where Block grew up, this doc takes us deep into the Block family dynamics.

Doug Block never intended to tell his parents' story who, he says, were an ordinary couple; he filmed them for posterity. That is, until "things took an unexpected turn." Block says he and his mother, Minna, had a "deep connection that goes way back." When Minna dies unexpectedly after a three-week bout with pneumonia, Block feels a sense of shock and feels he can't move on.

Shortly after Minna's death, Block's father, Mike, reconnects with his former secretary, Kitty, from 35 years before. Block is really thrown for a loop when Mike calls to announce that he and Kitty are getting married. Block says he went through his life thinking that the definition of a successful marriage is that it stands the test of time. During his parents' 54-year seemingly happy marriage, Block saw Mike and Minna, as an "inseparable unit."

After discovering three boxes of his mother's daily journals, Block struggles with whether or not he should read them. Both Minna's friend and a rabbi give Block their blessings to move forward, but Block never really addresses sharing his mother's most private thoughts in a film. When he begins examining his parents' marriage through the journals, photos, home movies, and interviews, the audience journeys with him.

Family secrets unfurl, and the mysteries get deeper with each juicy clue. Block pours over family photos and wonders why he is suddenly bothered that his father's new wife Kitty attended his bar mitzvah in 1966. He interviews his sisters, his maternal uncle, his father, Kitty, and we are privy to interviews with his parents before his mother's death.

This seemingly small story about one family is as powerful as it is subtle; Doug Block has created a new genre of deeply intimate personal documentary. His inquiries evoke universal questions and themes about honesty, fidelity, monogamy, life choices, crushes, self-control, and the sacrifices we make for our children's welfare.

I still wonder if Minna would have wanted to share her innermost thoughts with the world. Also, I didn't come up with the same interpretations of Minna's writings, or the conclusions about Mike. But, the evocative material kept me riveted, and considering the possibilities. "51 Birch Street" is the cinematic equivalent of a great page-turner. I'm grateful that Block made this film. But, it makes you wonder if you should burn your diaries. In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield.
More Information:
51 Birch Street
Doug Block, Director