A version of this review was originally published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. RADiUS-TWC opens “Fed Up” nationwide on Friday.
The activist documentary “Fed Up” relays its message with the directness of a well-thrown dart: There is a public menace that threatens the children, threatens the future prosperity of the country and threatens you. The target of these accusations is sugar — specifically its pervasiveness in our food.
Three years in the making, with the celebrity journalist Katie Couric serving as producer and narrator, “Fed Up” chronicles the lives of several young people who struggle with obesity while intercutting an impressive roster of talking heads — all of whom support the argument that the food industry is knowingly endangering the American people. There have been several documentaries over the past decade that have addressed the obesity issue, but few have cast the net of conspiracy this wide, going so far as to assert that the United States government is complicit in the process. It’s a serious accusation that requires a comprehensive, compelling argument, and on that count “Fed Up” is a master debater.
Things get off to a shaky start with an over-the-top opening montage of garish footage showing floppy bellies. Things quickly recover with the introduction of the kids the filmmakers followed for several years: None of them are particularly healthy: Fifteen-year-old Brady and 12-year-old Maggie weigh 215 and 212 pounds, respectively, while 13-year-old Wesley is nearing 180 pounds and showing the warning signs of type 2 diabetes.
All three recognize that they need to drastically lose the weight for their health. They practice the regular mantra as they’re told: eat in moderation and exercise. However, none have anything to show for it, appearing confused and defeated, while some even gain more weight. But their plight effectively services the movie’s focus.
With the testimony of pediatricians, scholars, politicians, and even Bill Clinton, “Fed Up” lays out how the common perception about how people become obese has unfolded as a mess of misinformation, how diet and exercise fail to curb the problem and why the food industries have been battling to keep this information secret for years. In 1977, with the implementation of recommendations from the McGovern Report, and investigation into the causes of obesity that had been heavily revised by food industry lobbyists, manufacturer Big Food had to put less fat into its products (thus sacrificing flavor), which it happily countered by unloading a massive influx of sugar into it products.
The experts that director Stephanie Soechtig and Couric have assembled provide crisp explanations of the problems with having so much sugar in our food: mainly, that it’s virtually impossible to burn off the calories in sugar and that it’s a flat-out addictive substance. “You can’t have just one line of cocaine,” one of the interviewees remarks. Seeing just how much sugar creeps into soft drinks and various types of food makes for a terrifying viewing experience, especially once you factor in the dozens of artificial syrups found all over the place.
The film is strongest in its takedown of how Big Food markets to kids. (You don’t see any cartoon tigers talking about how the merits of grapes.) The PR sector of the food industries come off especially bad in footage of them shamelessly defending their focus on children as young as infants, the most outrageous being a McDonald’s spokeswoman arguing to Congress about the magic and wonder of Ronald McDonald as if he were Santa Claus.
Utilizing visual effects to deliver an infographic whiz-bang, “Fed Up” is a slick presentation. However, Couric’s narration suffers from a stilted quality not unlike the mechanical patter of the evening news. “Fed Up” may not provide anything new for savvier consumers, but it will certainly be revelatory for average Americans who have no idea just what they’re putting into their bodies. Above all, the film is a call to action: watching Big Food lobbyists fight, sabotage and misdirect any attempts to provide our kids with better food while being reminded that there are kids younger than ten dropping dead from heart attacks creates a significant condemnation of our current system. “Fed Up” is a glossy package that gets its warnings across loud and clear: we need to change what we eat.