America the Beautiful: Darryl Roberts Documentary

(Documentary)

In his survey-like documentary “America the Beautiful,” Darryl Roberts is concerned with one major question: Why is American culture so obsessed with physical appearance and beauty?

To answer that question, he interviews an assortment of types, children, professionals like chemists and plastic surgeons, magazine editors, Hollywood agents and celebs, teachers and students.

The U.S. is known for being one of the wealthiest nations in the world, offering the greatest opportunities for upward mobility for it its citizens. Yet in 2004 alone, Americans spent no less than $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery. With such an abundance of wealth, why are Americans so discontent In almost 40,000 media messages a year, youthful Americans are being told that unless they look like supermodels or rock stars, they’re not good or successful enough.

These are the initial assumptions of “America the Beautiful,” a quasi-provocative documentary that raises interesting questions but mostly recites what we already know. The feature played at the 2007 AFI Dallas and Chicago film festivals and is now being released theatrically in major cities.

What’s missing from the work is a deeper probation into the sources of the problem, and some comparative data about how the U.S. differs from other wealthy Western countries. What made Michael Moore’s “Sicko” such an absorbing documentary was his systematic, cross-cultural survey of health care and insurance issues of the U.S. vis–vis Canada, France, and the U.K. I mention Moore because I think he serves as a model for the folksy humorous approach of Roberts.

Even so, despite flaws, Robert’ non-fictional chronicle does have merits, such as
Central piece, the story of Gerren Taylor, a 6-foot teenager who went from being an innocent 12 year old girl to being one of America’s next top supermodels. As she and her mother-manager literally trot the globe, heading down the road to stardom, we watch the dichotomy between Gerren’s adolescent struggles and her adult rights and rituals of passage as she encounters representatives of Marc Jacobs, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, and other top designers. Taylor’s tumultuous quest is meant to serve as a mirror to the American psyche. More importantly, through her story, it becomes apparent how the same beauty that could jump-start a career could ultimately destroy one’s young lifeand future.

Filmmaker Roberts has spent a two-year journey examining and chronicling America’s preoccupation with physical perfection. In “America the Beautiful,” he tries to understand the secrets, confessions, harsh realities, and risks that underline our society’s relentless quest for appearances.

Roberts is blessed with a likable persona, which helps him gain access into various milieus. He talks to fashion mavens and cosmetic-industry gurus, some of whom brush aside his concerns with cynicism or denial, but like a good pro he persists.

Of course, the main concern is with youth, America’s future. To find out what has the country’s pre-teens and teens stand in line for their turn on “I Want a Famous Face,” and its adults on “Extreme Makeover,” Roberts dives into basic tenets of out culture, such as perpetual fear and anxiety, materialistic consumption, and idolatry of physical objects. He seeks answers from celebrities, media experts, scholars, as well as everyday or ordinary Americans.

For example, playwright Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”) proclaims the significance of each individual’s beauty, quoting a Kenyan woman’s self-affirmation. Roberts talks to an attractive preteen, who’s convinced she’s ugly, and to parents of a girl who died of bulimia. There’s a scary, alarming testimony from a victim of a botched plastic surgery whose doctor had formerly practiced on a tomato. An anthropologist expresses her shock at the changes wrought in Fiji culture by exposure to MTV.

A toxicology expert compares the few (about 6) cosmetic products banned by the FDA to the 450 banned by the European Union, but there’s no good discussion of the differences between individual and institutional causes of what could be described as the “beauty crisis.”

The numbers of women and children who are on severe diets are staggering. Roberts inserts serio-comic statistics, such as the fact that “three minutes looking at a fashion magazine makes 70% of women of all ages feel depressed, guilty and shameful.” Clearly, these problems haunt not just women but also adolescents and very young girls, and the key may be in socialization that takes place at a very young age.

The experienced editors Kurt Engfehr (“Bowling for Columbine”) and Stela Georgieva (“Super Size Me”) have helped shape the loose, often messy footage into a smoother, more coherent and watchable film.
Cast

The docu features Gerren Taylor, Michelle Taylor, Elizabeth Arden, Chris Elder, Jill Ishkarian, Paris Hilton, Eve Ensler, Anthony Griffin, Martin Short, Anne Becker.

Credits

First Independent Pictures release of a Sensory Overload production.
Produced by Darryl Roberts, Kurt Engfehr, Stela Georgieva, Michele G. Blumenthal.
Executive producers: Henry N. L. Anderson, Michael Beach, Dennis Damore, Terence Wright.
Co-producers: Sherese Locke, Sharon Newport, Kimberly Bennick, Jason Brousseau.
Directed, written by Darryl Roberts.
Camera: Michele G. Blumenthal, Terence Wright, Cassie.
Editors: Kurt Engfehr, Stela Georgieva, Charles Miller.
Music: Michael Bearden, Cliff Lim, Sam Martin, Denny Schauffler, Nick Seeley, Jason Zaffary.
Sound: Patrick Donahue.

Running time: 99 Minutes.