“Youth Knows No Pain” subjects America’s anti-aging obsession to an intimate, often unflattering closeup, and with an appreciable lack of vanity, director Mitch McCabe also holds up her own face — lines, imperfections and all — for the camera’s scrutiny. McCabe’s unique perspective as a plastic surgeon’s daughter informs this lively, candid and thoughtful piece, which avoids the fashionable alarmism of so many social-issue docs as it weighs the costs and benefits of wrinkle creams, breast implants and Botox injections and allows viewers to decide for themselves. Airing Aug. 31 on HBO, the highly accessible pic could operate well in theaters.
It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the bulk of the film’s interviewees — many of whom have gone under knife or needle — will strike viewers as shallow, uneducated, beauty-obsessed rubes, as evidenced by derisive snorts and comments overheard at the pic’s CineVegas screening. But McCabe never condescends to subjects like fiftysomething Dallas resident Sherry Mecom, a warm, friendly, rather spacey woman who has no problem speaking openly about her recent cosmetic enhancements or baring her new and “beautifully formed” breasts (per her adoring husband) for the camera.
Of the many women and few men McCabe meets (she began interviews in 2002) — most of whom are oncamera for only a few minutes, offering their views on the fear of aging and the importance of looking youthful and attractive — Mecom gets the most screen time and leaves the strongest impression. Running a close second is sculptor/art teacher/aspiring actor Norman Deesing, who, through the miracle of cosmetic surgery, now bears an astonishing and highly marketable resemblance to Jack Nicholson.
At one point, Deesing tells McCabe, “You’ve let yourself go, and you know it” — a shockingly blunt comment, but one that doesn’t feel out of place in this context. Throughout the film, McCabe foregrounds her own experience, venting her insecurities about her appearance as well as her highly ambivalent views on the matter of artificial improvements; she confesses she bought her first wrinkle concealer at age 13 but has avoided having work done, despite her exposure to her late father’s practice.
Indeed, McCabe’s film doubles as a loving portrait of her dad (shown at work in his consulting room in the pic’s ample homevideo footage), whom she says never once criticized her physical appearance. Offering a sharp contrast is popular Houston-based plastic surgeon Dr. Franklin Rose, interviewed here with his model daughter, Erica, who says her dad once asked if her breasts were asymmetrical.
McCabe’s personal approach frees the pic from any obligation to be a comprehensive study of its subject (impossible, given the fleet 88-minute running time), though her natural curiosity does lead her and the viewer down many an entertaining avenue. Among the more bizarre subcultures she encounters is a New York group for Botox hopefuls, where she learns the rather alarming fact that anyone with a medical degree can inject the stuff.
Elsewhere, “Youth Knows No Pain” smartly and amusingly sends up the $60 billion anti-aging industry, attaching visual pricetags to the many beauty products on display, very few of which actually are effective. Pic also riffs on the ways in which a once-taboo subject has become ubiquitous in popular culture, from shows like “Nip/Tuck” to celebrity dermatologists like Dr. Bobby Buka.
Shot and edited by McCabe herself, the technically superb production makes wise use of animation for some of the surgery sequences, though the bloodiest and most blood-curdling operation — a hair transplant — is shown in unflinching live-action.