"51 Birch Street" is one of the great mystery films of our time. There is no murder; there is no theft; there is no crime at all. Instead, this documentary illuminates one of the most mystifying aspects of our lives – our own families. Budding documentarian Doug Block turned the camera on his own parents for this revealing look at the secrets and stories buried deep within his family's past that led him to question just how much he really knew them.
Doug Block makes documentaries, supporting himself occasionally by filming weddings. As someone who makes a living documenting the experiences of real people, one would think he would gain significant insight into the personalities of his subjects. Since he is so handy with a camera, he naturally turns it on his own family from time to time, interviewing his parents about their 54-year-marriage and filming their holiday and birthday celebrations. With the unexpected death of his mother Mina from pneumonia, thus ends a marriage that Doug always considered very happy and normal. Only months later, his 83-year-old father, Mike, takes a trip to Florida where he reunites with and quickly marries his secretary from 35 years earlier. Doug and his two sisters are shocked by this turn of events, struggling to take it in as they are still mourning the loss of their mother. Mike and his new bride, Kitty, quickly decide to sell the family home – the home Mike and Mina lived in most of their lives – and move to Florida.
It is at this point that questions begin to build in Doug's mind. As he looks through old family photos, he spots Kitty at his bar mitzvah. Why would she have been there? He remembers the long trips his father would take alone on business and the aloofness his father often exhibited. Perhaps Mike's reunion with Kitty was no coincidence. Could it be that they were carrying on an affair all those years? Reviewing old interviews with his parents, Doug finds new meaning in his mother's answers that seem to indicate a lack of marital fulfillment on her part. More spark is added to the fire when Mike and Kitty happen upon some manuscripts written by Mina. The manuscripts represent decades' worth of personal diary entries. The thought of reading through his mother's most private expressions is both tantalizing to Doug in light of his recent suspicions and terrifying as he questions how much he wants to know about her. But the most frightening discovery may be that he doesn't know his parents at all.
What unfolds for the duration of the movie is a man's eye-opening journey into his parents' past to discover what was hidden behind the façade of their attractive, prototypically 1950s suburban appearance. As Doug plunges through the pages of his mother's diaries, he unearths the secret yearnings of a woman struggling to break free from the confines of her social prison. New interviews with Mike, Kitty, his sisters, Mina's brother and her best friend help construct a more complete picture of the life his mother was living and her growing dissatisfaction with it. Doug even visits a rabbi to discuss his apprehension about his invasion of Mina's secrets.
I can recall few films that so honestly and thoroughly convey the tribulations of an American wife, with all of her marital disappointments and desperate attempts at fulfillment. Doug Block's camera style is by no means artful, but his candid home-video approach puts us all right into the middle of this family. We experience the shock of his discoveries because his family is so much like our families. There is nothing more mysterious than the secrets of the people around us, and from the unraveling of this mystery Doug forms a beautiful portrait of an unfulfilled woman.
Coming to DVD from Image Entertainment, "51 Birch Street" is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio. As the movie was filmed on video, the transfer accurately reflects all of the positive and negative aspects. The picture is generally clear (and looks great on a tube TV), and colors are often nicely rendered. The film's extensive use of photos and old home movies is given due justice.
The audio comes to us by way of a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Like the picture quality, everything here goes as home videos go. Music is kept to a minimum, and the voices sound just fine.
Starting off the special features is a 22-minute featurette, "Who Knew? The Block Family Reacts to 51 Birch Street." This highly informative bonus, once again directed and photographed by Doug Block, features interviews with Mike, Kitty, Doug's sisters and uncle about their reactions to the finished product and the film's release. None of them had any idea that the film would ever be seen by anyone outside of the family, so their reactions are very interesting. We also get a glimpse of Mike and Kitty picking up an award for the film on Doug's behalf (presented to them by Kathy Bates and Martin Sheen, no less).
The next feature is a very funny and surprising music video, again photographed by Doug, featuring his elderly uncle, Josh Vogel, singing "I Flunk Adultery." Vogel wrote the song himself about his inability to commit adultery, and in addition to being quite hilarious, Doug's video is also outrageously Freudian. Finishing off the disc is a theatrical trailer.
By turns funny and touching, revealing and completely relatable, "51 Birch Street" reaches a part of us all that wonders about the people who are closest to us. Everybody has their secrets, and no matter how much we think we know someone, there is always so much more that we don't know. The secrets that Doug Block uncovers about his parents are by no means earth-shattering and, in fact, are no different from the experiences of many married couples. However, few people want to see their own parents in this light, and Doug's courageous revelation is an inspiring catalyst for us all to communicate more openly with those close to us, especially our parents, whom we think we know all about.