In his documentary “America the Beautiful,” Darryl Roberts, like some affable, disingenuous Michael Moore type, wanders around asking everyone — from unabashed male chauvinists to kids, agents, cosmetic chemists, plastic surgeons, magazine editors, celebrities and teachers — why America is so obsessed with beauty, particularly since, as he goes to great pains to demonstrate, the consequences of that obsession can prove so dire. Wide-ranging educational docu attaches itself to the rise and fall of a 12-year-old fashion model, and indeed, its sincere, cautionary tone seems best suited to younger auds and smallscreen exposure. Pic opens Aug. 1 at Gotham’s Cinema Village.
If Roberts’ laid-back, faux-naive onscreen persona grants him easy access to fashion mavens and cosmetic-industry gurus who brush aside his concerns with outright cynicism or facile denials, his interviewees are thankfully not required to respond on the same level.
Thus, “The Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler, proclaiming the beauty of each individual, quotes a Kenyan woman’s vivid self-affirmation (enlivening it with a credible Swahili accent). At one ad agency, a woman smartly sums up capitalist alienation with a succinctness that would have done Marx proud: “Establish a problem and position yourself as the solution.”
Roberts’ film embraces a remarkable array of topics and interlocutors: an attractive preteen who’s convinced she’s ugly; the parents of a girl who died of bulimia; an anthropologist shocked by the changes wrought in Fiji culture by exposure to MTV; a victim of a botched plastic surgery whose doctor had previously only practiced on a tomato; a toxicology expert who compares the six cosmetic products banned by the FDA to the 450 banned by the European Union; and a sea of other voices on a subject that haunts not just the average woman but, increasingly, the average little girl.
Alongside staggering factoids about the number of women and children on diets, or the billions spent on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, Robert inserts such offbeat statistics as “three minutes looking at a fashion magazine makes 70% of women of all ages feel depressed, guilty and shameful.”
Roberts manages to squeeze all this in around the edges of his main storyline, as he follows 6-foot, 12-year-old Gerren Taylor and her mother/manager around the globe — from her first, phenomenally successful season as a top model to the less-than-stellar succeeding years when her body subtly changes shape and she is deemed “obese” at sizes 2-4. Meanwhile, agency heads, top designers and fashion reporters weigh in on the industry’s inflexible demands and the ultimate expendability of its poster children.
Hardly revelatory, sometimes downright redundant pic nevertheless covers its myriad bases succinctly, while rejecting both grandstanding indignation and self-nullifying “fairness.”
Roberts tapped vet editors Kurt Engfehr (“Bowling for Columbine”) and Stela Georgieva (“Super Size Me”) to wrestle his highly heterogeneous footage into cohesive form.