It always helps to be reminded that our parents have lives of their own, that we don't know everything about them, that if we did know everything about them we might wish we didn't. And that's the lesson to be drawn from 51 Birch Street, Doug Block's quietly moving documentary about his own parents' secrets and lies. Mina and Mike Block were, in many ways, the typical suburban couple, dad a mechanical engineer who may have preferred equations over relations, mom a vivacious beauty who turns out to have been a lot more miserable than anybody thought. Block was a lot closer to his mother, which made it that much more difficult when his 83-year-old father, after his wife died in 2002, wasted no time hooking up with a woman who'd been his secretary 30 years before. Had the two had an affair back then? Had they had one all along?
These are questions we don't necessarily want the answers to, but Block presses forward with them, sorting through old photographs, watching home movies, talking to his parents' friends and relatives, not to mention his father. And what emerges from this quest is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary family, a novel-on-film set in the leafy burb of Port Washington, N.Y. Like any good novel, 51 Birch Street has a twist or two, and when Block discovers his mother's diaries, it's like having her there to explain everything...and nothing. For they're mostly a years-long squeal of psychic pain, Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique all over again. Some might accuse Block of airing his family's dirty laundry, but what's so poignant about the movie is that he didn't even know the laundry was dirty until he hung it out to dry.