It may be an unfair comparison, since Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick’s latest documentary aims for comedy over substance throughout. But both films address the impacts and effects of insecurity among women (“Sexy Baby”) and men (“Mansome”) and thus make for an interesting pairing. Launching them at the Tribeca Film Festival, typically strong in its documentary programming, was a smart move not only because a good portion of their content takes place in New York City, but also, at least in the case of “Sexy Baby,” because the setting provides a culturally influential place to start a serious discussion (see: “Bully”).
Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ “Sexy Baby” had its world premiere Friday night at the AMC Lowes Village 7 in front of a packed crowd with a predictably female tilt. Fest co-founder Jane Rosenthal introduced the film with the straightforward admonition that as the mother of two teenage girls, she feels this doc is “the scariest movie I watched” from the fest program. When some in the crowd chuckled, she added, “We can laugh about it, but it’s not funny.”
Point taken. The film, while offering some funny moments, is serious as hell. In “Sexy Baby,” Bauer and Gradus take on the mainstreaming of pornography and the over-sexualization of women, following three storylines that contribute to the tsunami of high-pressure, 21st-century messaging.
Winnifred is 12, strikingly precocious and yet still susceptible to playing into the new expectations for how girls should think, dress and act. In her young world, the sorcery of Facebook often overwhelms her parents’ and her own better instincts.
Twenty-two-year-old Laura is a sweet, self-possessed kindergarten teacher who has built up a lifetime of self-consciousness and shame about the size and shape of her vagina. Porn-loving ex-boyfriends have only pushed her further toward the certainty that labiaplasty, or surgically re-building her most intimate parts, is the only path to happiness.
Nichole, 32, was for many years Nikita Kash, a model, stripper and porn star who has since left the business, married a loving man and formed a new professional life teaching “civilian” women how to pole dance. As she struggles to start a family, she faces the challenge of re-defining herself outside of her past and reconciling what messages she has helped to propagate in a culture now seemingly obsessed with re-making every billboard, print ad and teenaged girl in the image of porn culture.
The resulting film is harrowing, graphic and poignant — essential viewing for everyone living in a post-Internet age where boys “learn” about anatomy from hip-hop, girls feel increasingly compelled to expose and change their bodies to fit unrealistic and unhealthy icons and parents are stuck in impossible 24/7 watchdog roles. Women of all ages, several of whom were muttering how excited they were to get into the TFF screening, were well represented in an audience that was receiving the film’s message with audible distress: Older women around me were muttering, “Oh my gawd,” and “Close your eyes” (and not just at the explicit imagery).
In a film with plenty of cringe-worthy moments, this one from Winnie, surely the planet’s most self-assured and witty preteen, had me scared to death: “Just because I know it’s corrupting me doesn’t mean I don’t still want it.”
Oh, boy, are we in trouble.
Many documentaries tackle their subjects with passion and depth, but “Sexy Baby” really deserves a wide audience. Here’s hoping that HBO sees its potential, or some other distributor finds a way to turn the film’s subject into a crusade the way Harvey Weinstein has made “Bully” a national rallying cry. In fact, “Bully” could just as easily fit as the title of Bauer and Gradus’ remarkable film.
On the other hand, Spurlock’s “Mansome,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at BMCC (and will distributed next month via Paladin), takes aim at the mainstreaming of pampering self-care in the male population. Waxing, spa treatments, ferocious narcissism, hair sculpting — Spurlock’s doc explores it all with the preemptive assumption that it’s all quite absurd. Along the way, executive producers Jason Bateman and Will Arnett serve as a Greek chorus cracking jokes about what it means to be a man in the 21st century while they endure facial treatments and massages at a day spa.
The movie is funny, no question. But it’s superficial piffle in terms of really saying anything about the actual dilemmas men face in the wake of feminism and political correctness. It’s certainly fun to hit up famous friends (Zach Galifianakis, Paul Rudd, Judd Apatow, Scott Ian, Cosmo editor in chief Kate White, John Waters, ZZ Top) to crack jokes about beards, hair pieces, virility, back shaving and ball maintenance.
But here Spurlock, who has proven himself a talented filmmaker and cultural commentator, for the first time skews into meanness. There’s a self-loathing to his treatment of men’s grooming follies and a mocking of certain subjects (the Indian metrosexual, the pro wrestler) built into the narrative and tone. Maybe the self-loathing is true to how men actually feel when addressing themselves in this space, but that’s not really discussed much in the movie.
Spurlock and co-writer Chilnick set out to make an entertaining film, and they certainly succeeded. But “Mansome“ came across as the pulpy novella a famous author throws in between his bigger, more meaningful books because he hasn’t yet had the next great idea worthy of his full attention. And in contrast to the powerful “Sexy Baby,” it feels like a missed opportunity.