There’s a different, darker film lurking beneath the lusciously edible Food Network surface of “Chef Flynn,” and when director Cameron Yates lets it peek out from the gastroporn, like little chips of charcoal in a white chocolate mousse, you feel a slight jab in your gut. A largely celebratory portrait of one of the most wondrous wunderkinds ever to hit the American culinary scene, self-taught teenage chef Flynn McGarry, Yates’ film gives viewers every reason to believe the hype built up by glossy media profiles over the years — and lets them feel the sting of an online backlash that would get under the skin of even the most dauntless adolescent. But it’s as an ambiguous study of parenting a prodigy that the film lingers on the palate, as McGarry’s mother Meg documents and manages his evolution to an obsessive, gradually oppressive degree.
Following festival berths in Sundance, Berlin and South By Southwest, “Chef Flynn” should easily find a place on VOD menus — though viewers hoping simply for a mouthwatering feature-length slab of “Top Chef”-style entertainment will be surprised by the more conflicted family story at its heart. At the beginning, however, Yates sells us on his 19-year-old subject as an infectiously eager gastronomy geek: McGarry is introduced darting around in the wild, enthusing over foraged ingredients like a junior Jamie Oliver, his signature ginger pompadour bobbing up and down with equal energy. He would ace a culinary TV show, but there’s plenty of time for that yet. Admittedly, those are not words that have been much heeded in the life of a boy who founded a restaurant-level supper club at his Los Angeles home aged 12 and earned a New York Times Magazine cover story at 16.
The film’s decade-spanning timeline is a dense one, invaluably served by Meg McGarry’s vast archive of home video footage: Scarcely a moment on the kid’s precocious journey to chefdom has gone unfilmed by his mother, a filmmaker herself, who regards her son with a mixture of doting parental pride and detached documentarian’s curiosity.
Her helicopter parenting turns on a fine line from endearing to invasive: As Meg and the teenaged Flynn argue in the car over her attempt to him even from a dashboard-mounted camera, one wonders if his preternaturally controlled kitchen is not just a workspace but a sanctuary. By the time she follows him to New York City to help him launch a buzzy pop-up, defensively hectoring diners on an already calamitous first night, he appears to have outgrown her surveillance. When Meg, meanwhile, complains wearily that “the creativity is all on his side,” the perils of guarding your child’s gifts too possessively are made clear.
The film is a little skimpy on the origins of his passion: We’re told that the 10-year-old was spurred to experiment in the kitchen as a reaction to Meg’s post-divorce reliance of takeout, but less about the building blocks between grilled cheese and Cordon Bleu. The McGarrys bristle somewhat, too, on the subject of the financial privilege enabling an expensive hobby, which is understandable — talent is talent is talent, after all. Overall, however, the picture presented of Flynn’s unorthodox childhood seems to be missing a few strokes.
As a simple showcase of his bewilderingly advanced skills, however, “Chef Flynn” serves as a light, persuasive rejoinder to the skeptics — both in the restaurant industry and the dark netherworld of internet comment boards — that emerged with McGarry’s growing celebrity as, in one critic’s sneering words, “Chef Doogie Howser.” Critically, we get to see the young chef crack drastically under pressure. It’d be hard to believe him, or this attractive, diverting film, if we didn’t, or if his family life was as neat as his plating style.