Regardless of the cause, the prevalence of empty-nest anxiety among baby boomers isn’t terribly flattering to their conception of domestic relationships. Does the angst stem from wounds caused by the previous generation’s downward-glancing, you’re-out-when-you’re-18 indifference? Or a generic fear of mortality? Or—the only fate worse than death—the pressure of having to feign intimacy with an aging spouse? Doug Block’s film The Kids Grow Up lightly suggests all three, but mostly reiterates the vertigo-like weirdness with which one realizes the infants they suckled are sentient beings with their own potential to reproduce, and their own need for mature partnerships.
While the daunting trauma of childlessness is Block’s subject, however, he draws on 20-plus years of home movies featuring his bright, dark-haired daughter, Lucy (who, in the film’s present tense, is leaving home to attend college), to inadvertently create a bitter, distant portrait of intergenerational betrayal. Had he started the film with Lucy’s departure for college and worked both backward (into crippling nostalgia) and forward (into the great beyond of filial superannuation), the video project may have seemed more appropriately, and hopefully, egocentric. But by doting mercilessly and disbelievingly on the past as preparation for the upcoming loneliness, Block seems determined to go as crankily as one can into his earthly twilight; there’s little pride expressed for his girl’s achievements, and every fond, videotaped memory is a springboard for exploring the filmmaker’s own nervous woe rather the ineffable quality that Lucy’s unique absence will displace.
There’s no doubt, from the nature of the self-probing narration and spontaneous cuteness of the footage, that the director’s affection for his daughter is genuine and intuitive, and that it fostered a mutually enriching relationship between them until her leaving home. (He, for example, does avoid “picking fights” with her to work out his anger as some interviewed friends do with their university-bound progeny.) The honest, diary-like simplicity of the film also achieves deceptively jarring observations; one scene frankly but tastefully discusses Lucy’s sexual activeness and then flashes back to her uncomplicated, preteen state, making eerily tangible the asexual onus of post-adolescent father/daughterhood communication. Likewise, a smattering of subplots offer some alleviating distraction from the fretful, central topic; after Block and his wife become grandparents by an older son, she falls into a debilitating depression and he attempts to reconnect with his own father.
But the film too often seems an homage to neurotic, and alienating, child-rearing tactics, even as it makes apologies for the manner that such tendencies can allow contented formative years to blossom into awkwardness and condescension. (Some footage even foreshadows intense difficulties between Doug and Lucy by suggesting the latter’s frustration over ubiquitous cameras in her business.) And Block’s closeness to his subject stunts his commentary’s trenchancy; he has nothing more to offer than the typical “Teach Your Children”-isms, with emphasis on the “parents’ hell.”
Of course, the universality of the father/daughter dynamic would make the experience of accurate and tender representation enough of a raison d’être, but Block never properly explains why—or if—he admires Lucy as a person independent of her familial context. (He claims to have always enjoyed her conversation, but only includes cloyingly sassy examples of this). At one crucial moment, the director admits to his exasperated daughter that he’d “rather be a good parent than make a good film,” but there’s scant evidence here for the achievement of either objective. The Kids Grow Up strays so seldom from the “well, duh”-ness of its titular rule-of-thumb that it ironically feels rather childish.