The biggest shock of Doug Block's life wasn't the sudden death of his mother. It came a few months later, when his father called to say he was getting remarried. It was one thing to see his parents' 54-year marriage end abruptly and yet another to see his father so quickly start over, especially with a woman who had been his secretary more than 30 years before.
Innocuously named for the family address, "51 Birch Street" is initially framed as Block's attempt to understand his parents' relationship. But somewhere in the middle, Block stops asking how well he knows his parents and starts wondering how well he wants to know them. As skeletons pour out of the family closet, Block tentatively concludes, "When it comes to your parents, maybe ignorance is bliss."
Thankfully, he doesn't stop there. What makes "51 Birch Street" a moving revelation rather than a therapeutic exercise is Block's commitment to understanding his parents, Mike and Mina, on their own terms, regardless of what it does to his image of them. That means confronting the fact that his father may have had a long-simmering affair with his former secretary, that his mother was desperately unhappy and unfulfilled and that marriages, his own as well as his parents', are never as painless as we'd like them to be.
The first subject of Block's home movie cum detective story is his father, described by one of Block's sisters as "such a 1950s dad." As he putters away in the basement workshop that was his escape from family responsibilities, Mike shows little emotion at his wife's passing, which makes the affection he lavishes on his new bride all the more distressing. It certainly seems as if, rather than mourning half a century of wedded bliss, Block's father is elated by his newfound freedom.
As they pack up the family house, however, Block happens on a cache of his mother's journals that brings her back to life in unexpected ways. He discovers that Mina felt stifled in the suburbs, that she encouraged her husband to experiment with drugs, that she was passionate about psychotherapy, and possibly her psychotherapist. Block's rooting through his mother's private papers may strike some as an invasion of privacy (even if a friend of hers does conclude, after a long pause, that it's what Mina would have wanted). But once he's started down the path, he finds it impossible to turn back, perhaps not least because it wouldn't make for a very good film.
"51 Birch Street" straddles the moment in our lives when we begin to see our parents as people, prey to the same weaknesses as any of our peers, and worthy of the same forgiveness.
Block's investigation permanently alters his view of his parents, and not always in positive ways. But he concludes it's better to know the good and the bad about them than not to know them at all. Ignorance may be bliss, but bliss isn't all it's cracked up to be.
'51 Birch Street'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Truly Indie release. Director-writer-cinematographer Doug Block. Producers Block, Lori Cheatle. Editor Amy Seplin. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 Pico Blvd. at Overland Avenue, (310) 281-8223.