Filling in the Blanks
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Jon Baime
How does one excite others over a family story? Filmmaker Jon Baime faces a question with Filling in the Blanks that many people encounter in documentary. Personal stories can make for great films. But sometimes they struggle to connect beyond the players involved.
Unfortunately, Baime finds himself in the latter camp with the well-intentioned conversational yarn Filling in the Blanks. The film follows Baime as he recounts his experience undergoing a DNA test. Baime, who basically narrates the story to an offscreen producer, tells how someone at a party joked that he should check his genes to ensure that he’s Jewish. The filmmaker tells how his father, Richard, interjected and tersely forbade his son to take the test. Boys being boys and filmmakers being naturally curious, Baime admits his interest was doubly piqued.
One can guess the reason why Richard didn’t want his son to test his genes. Learning at the age of 54 that one’s parent isn’t one’s biological father must be a doozy of a revelation. Baime conveys his gobsmacked awe as his pun-laden account leads him down an online genealogy rabbit hole. He connects with a half-dozen half-siblings. One of them even wishes him well on his adventure, as if he’s embarking on something fun. They all work together to reach the dot that connects them.
Unpacking Family Secrets
Baime harnesses his half-sibling’s sense of play and discovers that his biological father is still alive. He’s an elderly Jewish man who grows gardens in retirement after selling his semen for five dollars a pop during his student days. While he’s not exactly Starbuck, he has a respectable track record.
The film draws upon interviews with Baime’s family members, except his the parents who raised him, who declined participation. (He coaxes some words from his mother, who can’t really follow a conversation, or consent to the information she provides, due to Alzheimer’s.) His parents simply won’t talk about the past.
Gathering the perspectives of siblings and half-siblings, Baime connects a shared story. These people all come from families with secrets. It’s the same with his half-siblings. Particularly with the fathers, Baime learns of hardships burdened by children who faced violence, aggression, or coldness from men who presumably felt emasculated by the fact that he was raising a child grown from another seed. Baime queries this idea of shame and morality. Why is having a child through assisted means a point of humiliation and secrecy? However, in turning the lens on the families created by the prolific donor, Baime finds a current of happiness that connects multiple families.
Keep It in the Family
The story and the moral of the story are both sound in Filling in the Blanks. Shot in perfectly serviceable docu-tainment style, moreover, it’s an amiable tale. But there isn’t enough here substantially or cinematically to merit a variation on a familiar account. The anecdotal material probably works better as dinner party conversation than as a feature film. Put another way, Filling in the Blanks isn’t exactly Stories We Tell.
The revelations of this tale are obviously life-altering for Baime, and rightly so, but the idiosyncrasies of a family tree don’t have the same bombshell effect for a viewer at home. The film just doesn’t bring extra gravitas to a story that audiences have heard before: man discovers family secret, man learns new parentage, man connects with new family.
The film should nevertheless make the participants feel warmed by the acts of love that created multiple families. The groundwork is there for a film that appeals beyond the concentric circles of one family. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t fill in the blanks to take it further.