At a time when so many biographical documentaries feel more like advertisements for their subjects than they do pieces of art in their own right, it’s pretty surprising that Cameron Yates’ “Chef Flynn” is one of the few recent films to buck the trend. On the surface, it seems like it has the makings of an insufferable cinematic puff piece: This is the story of wünderkind chef Flynn McGarry, a cute little kid with a carrot-colored pompadour who transformed the living room of his mother’s Los Angeles home into a Michelin-worthy supper club when he was only 10 years old. The kitchen staff was adorable, the food was delicious, and the hook was catchy enough to earn national attention.
First there was a brief piece in the New Yorker. That was followed by a major profile in the Times Magazine, which led to a blitz of talk show appearances, stagings at vaunted foodie Meccas like Eleven Madison Park, and preliminary thoughts about penning a memoir. By the time Yates and his cameras entered the picture, McGarry was in his later teens, and preparing to open his own restaurant in the Lower East Side. For a movie about a kid who grew up making things he read about in Thomas Keller’s ultra-sophisticated “The French Laundry Cookbook,” “Chef Flynn” sounds like a recipe for artificially sweetened comfort food.
And perhaps, in lesser hands, it would have been. But Yates’ documentary — his first since 2010’s “The Canal Street Madam,” which was decidedly not about some precocious scamp who’s privileged enough to follow their dreams — has a more nuanced palate than you might expect. “Chef Flynn” has a taste for a deeper kind of truth, albeit an acquired taste that takes some time to develop; time that an 82-minute film doesn’t necessarily have.
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The first thing we learn about young Flynn McGarry is that he really, really loves to cook; he gets more excited over a tasty herb he finds in his garden than most kids might if they stumbled upon the rarest creature in “Pokémon Go.” Whatever the root cause of his passion, and whomever encouraged him to pursue it, Flynn’s enthusiasm seems beyond question. As a result, viewers might find themselves asking themselves something else: Is he a good chef, or just a young one?
His mom, a filmmaker who stuffed her own creative ambitions into a doggy bag when she decided to have a family, certainly believes that her son has a gift. In fact, Meg McGarry has been compulsively documenting Flynn’s culinary exploits since before he could even walk. Not only do her candid home videos comprise a huge chunk of this movie, but she’s a fixture of the footage that Yates shot as well, and his documentary is at its most textured and satisfying when it figures out that she might be the main course.
Loving and neurotic — self-aware but completely incapable of stopping herself — Meg can’t help but worry about the role that she’s played in shaping her son. “I’m a player in this mad film about my strange son who figured out his life so early,” she confesses to no one in particular, her obvious pride doing nothing to stem the aftertaste of doubt that comes with it. “You never expect your kid to be famous,” she says at one point. “He’s on the cover of the Times Magazine — I’ll never be on the cover of the Times Magazine.”
Is she resentful of her boy’s success? Regretful that she ditched any chance of achieving her own? Rueful of the alcoholic ex-husband whose absence forced their son to grow up too soon? Parsing Meg’s feelings is the most rewarding part of the film, especially as she wonders aloud if she’s done too much to guide Flynn’s story; if his cooking fed some undernourished part of herself.
Meg is a complicated mother, but a very good one, and the love she harbors for her son permits Yates to detail the dynamic between the two of them without souring the vibe of this upbeat and inspirational portrait. Yates, however, is still a bit too cautious to dig into it. He hints at the human element that lurks just below those talk show appearances — or the success that any child is lucky enough to earn and/or enjoy in this world — without ever sinking his teeth into it. It’s as though he prepares viewers a prime rib steak, but only permits us to lick off the garnish.
That’s just how it goes for a film with far too much on its plate. After all, the eponymous cook is still the main subject, and “Chef Flynn” seldom lets him out of its sights. Fortunately, Flynn is a wonderful character. His preference for the fancy stuff is amusing; imagine if a tween filmmaker who grew up on Tarkovsky decided that his student films should all be three-hour meditations on time and mortality (and then imagine that they were good). He’s a kid brave enough to work in some of the most intimidating restaurants in America, grounded enough to recognize the ripple effects of his presence, and bold enough to run an entire kitchen staff when the time comes.
At the risk of reading too deep into a film that doesn’t offer a ton of meat on the bone, there are moments towards the end of the movie that serve as a portrait of a young, relatively well-off white man trying to reckon with the privilege he’s been afforded and figure out how much of his success has been earned. Flynn McGarry will surely be reckoning with that question for a long time to come, but it can be fascinating to watch someone take strides towards self-awareness at a time when the world is so eager to give them everything they’ve ever wanted. “Chef Flynn” would rather provide a tasting menu of these ideas then offer something more satisfying, but it takes a good cook to leave you hungry for more.
“Chef Flynn” is now playing in theaters via Kino Lorber.