Review: Obesity documentary 'Fed Up' isn't fresh, but it's persuasive
Sundance doc continues a conversation about healthy eating
I'm into the third week of the TCA Press Tour/Sundance double-bill and things have begun to get just a bit punchy and, with punchiness, I start falling back on intellectually facile puns.
So when I tell you that Stephanie Soechtig's Sundance US Documentary Competition entry "Fed Up" offers ample food for thought, you're going to have to take that with a grain of salt.
Oy. See what I did there?
Yeah. I have no pride.
Just because it's punny doesn't mean it isn't true. One of the pleasures of Sundance is riding shuttles with passionate audiences discussing the movies they've just seen and I don't remember the last time I took a shuttle in which every single rider was so deep and loudly in conversation about the film that they just saw as after catching a matinee of "Fed Up."
It's telling that I don't think I heard a single person discussing "Fed Up" in terms of its cinematic quality or lack thereof. Nobody wanted to talk about whether or not "Fed Up" was a "good" movie, but everybody wanted to engage with the documentary's central polemic.
Even at a film festival, not everybody is equipped with the vocabulary or the desire to talk about the merits of direction or editing or cinematography, but no matter who you are or where you go, absolutely everybody has the vocabulary and the desire to talk about food and eating. And just as devoted moviegoers are stubborn in their subjective approval or disapproval of certain films, "eating" is something that most people think they know how to do correctly, so when a documentary like "Fed Up" comes along and assails the fundamentals of this very basic human process, everybody has an opinion and everybody wants to share the things that they're sure they're doing right and the things they're apparently doing wrong.
So that's something I have to keep in mind when I'm reviewing "Fed Up."
I don't think it's a very good movie, but I think it's a hugely effective documentary, at least in certain contexts. It happens that the Sundance Film Festival is exactly the context in which "Fed Up" would be most superficially effective. The question is how the filmmakers, including executive producer and narrator Katie Couric, will be able to get "Fed Up" out into our national bloodstream so that its ideas will be able to circulate. Without wide distribution, concentrated most heavily among young viewers, it has no value at all. With wide distribution, particularly in schools, I've seen first-hand how well it instigates conversation. Ultimately, I think that Soechtig will be happier with that compliment than she'll be unhappy about any minor disappointment I feel in "Fed Up" as an aesthetic endeavor. "Fed Up" is designed to make people rethinking their eating habits, not to win Oscars.
More on "Fed Up" after the break...
As Couric tells us (and even shows us) at the beginning of the doc, "Fed Up" is an extension of a conversation she's been trying to have for decades now about why Americans are obese and what risks we face due to the lifestyle that we are collectively living.
In short order, "Fed Up" goes through conventional attitudes towards overweight people, the tendency to blame people entirely for their size and to attempt to boil lifestyle readjustments down to a simple pairing: Eat less, exercise more. But why, "Fed Up" wonders, have obesity rates and gym memberships risen in tandem? Why hasn't the explosion of in "Reduced Fat" and "Diet" products coincided with a tightening of our national belts. Why, if this is a discussion that Katie Couric has been jamming down our throats since the '80s, is nothing sticking?
Soechtig and Couric are asking these questions and so are several interview subjects, who tell their stories in both ordinary documentary talking heads and also in citizen journalist-style Skype confessionals. The subjects are all just kids, they're all overweight and they're all struggling with the idea that even though they're making what society tells them are healthy and conscientious choices, they aren't losing any weight at all. The kids talk about their eating and talk about their exercising and then "Fed Up" proceeds to show what they're doing wrong.
I don't want to spoil "Fed Up" for you, but it's also pretty likely that if you have a natural curiosity in "Fed Up," you won't be surprised: Sugar is bad. Very bad. Freaking awful, in fact. In reducing fat from products, companies have added sugar and that's making you fat. If you're drinking regular sodas or sweet juices, if you're eating sweetened cereals, if you're even looking in the direction of a fast food restaurant, that's making you fat. And, in addition to making you fat, it's probably also giving you diabetes or worse.
"Fed Up" makes this seem like some sort of grand reveal, but there's no new research being done for the documentary. In fact, despite talking about how letter exposure this information has gotten, "Fed Up" keeps filling the screen with stories from massive online news hubs saying the exact same thing. This is information that exists in the world, but the feeling is that we're not discussing it enough, which I can't disagree with either.
The feeling is also that we apparently aren't placing the blame in the right places. We should be blaming companies for creating processed crap and then for peddling it to children. We should be blaming the USDA for its conflicted agendas of peddling health and also pushing American agricultural interests. We should be blaming Republicans for cutting back on school lunch budgets and turning elementary school cafeterias into farm systems for Pizza Hut and Pepsi. [While Ronald Reagan is the poster boy for this Original Sin, it should be noted that he only thought ketchup was a vegetable, while tomato sauce on pizza has been reaffirmed as vegetabular even with a Democrat in the White House.] We should be blaming the lobbyists and special interest groups who have quashed a variety of attempts at nutritional reform. We should be blaming Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative for falling downplaying its hard push against commercial interests and accepting accommodations and change that will barely make a ripple. "Fed Up" has a wide assortment of new targets for ire, or at least targets that will be new if you haven't read "Fast Food Nation" or anything by Michael Pollan and if you haven't seen "Food Inc." Of course, those things have already existed and, in some cases, been quite popular and yet they haven't made the sort of tangible impact "Fed Up" aspires to.
"Fed Up" generally seems to be adhering to that NBC slogan meant to get people to watch repeats over the summer: If you haven't seen it, it's new to you.
The same is true of the featured talking heads, who include the usual assortment of nutritionists and health experts repeating the studies which, as I already mention, were previously publicized. There's one hack nutritionist who is presented as being in the pocket of the beverage industry, but otherwise Soechtig lists the various corporations that declined to be interviewed for the film. In lieu of those Voices of Evil, Soechtig is able to use the often hilarious public/testimonial footage of corporate stooges like the McDonalds rep who claims, "We don't market to children. Ronald McDonald informs and inspires by magic and fun." I love Louis C.K. but he's never said anything that funny.
"Fed Up" is not an artistically adventurous movie. It's a well-paced assemblage of semi-amusingly rendered statistics, graphics set against images of bulging bellies and then the aforementioned cutaways to news story headlines. Some documentaries on this subject would aim to scare or gross viewers out, but "Fed Up" is just going for a preponderance of evidence.
The underaged interview subjects add a little sadness, but there's a certain confusing regarding how they're being used. How were they selected? What information was being provided to them? When you watch innocent kids doing wrong things in a film that's all about teaching kids to do right things, it's really frustrated when Katie Couric doesn't show up at the different houses to make sure people do better.
I think "Fed Up" is content to let the kids fend for themselves in order to reenforce what is pretty thoroughly a victim narrative. As y'all know, I'm a big government liberal and it doesn't offend my sensibilities in the slightest to see suggestions that certain far-reaching steps could be taken through legislation or policy. You won't hear me natter about the "nanny state" or saying that obesity is an issue of personal responsibility.
However, "Fed Up" pushes way, way in the opposite direction. Like I think there's a difference between thinking that "Eat Less, Exercise More" is a magical panacea and saying that it's *wrong*. I think that "Eat Less, Exercise More" is another way of saying, "Pay Attention To Your Lifestyle." That, to me, feels like a gateway into examining healthier choices. In its call-to-action, "Fed Up" includes a couple "micro" suggestions, things that kids and families can do differently, but the bigger points almost all involve macro suggestions aimed at making parents and children less powerless. The balance is so heavily weighed -- Ugh. Sorry. -- in those directions that there will be viewers who will get the wrong message and go, "I know what I can do, but it might be nice if the government took a few of those steps first."
This would be the wrong message to take from "Fed Up." Even if I felt the victimization side of things was played up, there's no lack of approachable calls to action. The closing credits include a bunch of helpful hints inserted amongst the names. The problem? People don't watch the credits to movies unless there's a chance Nick Fury might show up. Where's the documentary about that, darnit?
So yeah. My brain is melting, so I'll wrap this up. If you're already a healthy eater and a food advocate, you won't get all that much from "Fed Up" and, in fact, you may think it's not nearly militant enough. But most people only think they're healthy eaters, they believe that the reduced fat Oreos are a vast step in the right direction, even if they contain the exact same amount of sugar as regular Oreos. They think that diet sodas are utterly benign. They genuinely believe that they can walk enough steps in the day to burn off the calories in a Taco Bell combo meal. For those people, "Fed Up" could be an eye-opener. But who is going to give it a home? Will it be able to make any impact with a theatrical release? Probably not. CNN is way too advertiser supported to take on a movie like this. PBS already did "Food Inc." Seeing how well "Fed Up" has played at Sundance, I'm confident somebody will give it a good home.