Review: 51 Birch Street

Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street opens today at Cinema Village in New York. The film has really been tearing up the festival circuit, and now Block is semi-self-distributing the film via Truly Indie, the distribution service brainchild of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner.

The film is being billed, not incorrectly, as a documentary mystery: Just a few months after Doug’s mother dies, Doug’s father suddenly announces that he’s engaged to his former secretary. It’s not long before Doug finds himself at their wedding, awkwardly toasting the new couple. At the reception his father, the groom, is a different man. What’s the story?

Was his father unfaithful? Was his parents’ seemingly happy marriage a sham?
Doug starts asking questions and the more the detective digs, the more uncertain he is he wants to know the truth.

On one level, 51 Birch Street is a well-made, if somewhat conventional, autobiographical documentary. Block’s conflicts with his father reminded me of Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business and, though it’s unfair to compare the two, I do wish that 51 Birch Street had some more stylistic flair. The visuals rarely transcend the plain, home-movie look so common to video, and Block’s voice-over sometimes explains more than is necessary.

But the movie is about looking beneath the surface, and on that meaningful score 51 Birch Street succeeds. Block shows us a seemingly stable marriage, then peels back layer after layer until he discovers the heartbreaking truths of two unfulfilled lives and the relationship they both outlived, but never abandoned. Implicit throughout is a critique of blind allegiance to “family values”: What good is a golden-anniversary marriage, if it’s stale, maybe even dead, at its core? The comparison to Updike (as at least one reviewer has made) is apt: This couple could have lived at 51 Birch Street. Or in your suburban neighborhood. Or maybe in your own home.

51 Birch Street makes an impact. I’ve thought about it every day since I saw it well over a week ago.

Check it out for yourself at a screening in your area.

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