A non-fiction inquiry into the toxic ramifications of the U.S.'s obsession with female beauty, Darryl Roberts' America the Beautiful certainly doesn't lack for a worthy topic, nor for endless avenues of investigation. Choice subject matter, however, only gets a film so far, and the director's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to tackling the myriad ways that women are beset by unreasonable and/or dangerous body-image ideals ultimately does as much harm as good.
Roberts is well-trained in the Michael Moore school of documentary filmmaking, using a personal story - his break-up with a potential wife over superficial qualms with her looks - as the impetus for a wide-ranging analysis of the modeling industry, the cosmetics trade, magazine advertising, the field of plastic surgery, and, for good measure, a tragic tale of bulimia to cap things off in suitably wrenching, cautionary-tale fashion. His strategy is to cram in as many facts and tidbits as 105 minutes will allow in order to present an overwhelmingly damning case against our cultural priorities. Frustratingly, though, his film is sometimes overwhelming less because of its convincing conclusions than simply because of its mountain of cursorily handled arguments.
Roberts' coup is binding his film to the story of Gerren Taylor, a modeling industry phenom at the tender age of twelve whose youth and still-developing body strikes fashion bigwigs as the ideal way to promote and sell adult clothes. Managed by her mother Michelle, a former model, Gerren' success on the runway means alienation at middle school from classmates and teachers (especially a revolted principal) and, as she gets older, increasingly unreasonable weight demands and appearance-related slanders from would-be employers. Hers isn't a particularly shocking tale, but Roberts does well to avoid treating her with condescension or scorn, allowing her joy, frustrations and inner struggles to unfold with a minimum of the intrusive commentary that, in the form of his sleepy narration, occasionally mars the proceedings. Gerren is an unwitting pawn whose self-esteem is subtly and not-so-subtly molded by both the fashion industry (where, for a time, she proves to be the star of Mark Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger's Los Angeles and New York runways) as well as by momager Michelle, and her slow disillusionment with the business she longed to be a part of eventually develops into something of a mini-tragedy about mutated female notions of self worth and confidence.
Were Roberts a more assured documentarian, Gerren's story might alone have conveyed the breadth of America's twisted, deleterious infatuation with physical perfection. Yet taking a cue from countless other recent pop docs, America the Beautiful strives for comprehensiveness at the expense of insight, indulging in numerous detours which detail the potentially lethal consequences of cosmetic surgery, the harmful ingredients found in over-the-counter make-up, the media's endorsement of waif-thin celebs, the means by which racial prejudices factor into standards of beauty, and examples of how revenue demands routinely trump all other moral/health/emotional concerns. This bombardment of information is presented in an aesthetically straightforward manner that thankfully eschews Moore's or Morgan Spurlock's lowest-common-denominator graphical cutesiness, and certainly makes his wealth of talking points easy to digest. What's frequently missing, however, is an appropriately thorough level of attention and care to each issue, as well as a more coherently argued thesis to tie them all together.
Then again, America the Beautiful's even-tempered refusal to posit easy answers to the difficult problems it addresses seems apt, and for every unsubtle moment - such as the blather of a cartoonish (and thus easy-to-dismiss) chauvinist - there are two or three that forcefully resound. Whereas Roberts's portrait of cosmetic surgery mutilation (which now, stunningly, extends to testicle implants for neutered dogs) often merely confirms well-known truths, the director nonetheless periodically presents an interview or juxtaposition that horrifyingly lays bare the depth of our contemptuous attitude toward women. That Revlon's products secretly contain phthalate - a chemical banned in Europe for being linked to cancer - while the company sponsors annual cancer-prevention Run-Walks is a telling reminder of the beauty industry's two-faced practices. The fact that social responsibility is less important than money to many culturally influential businesses, however, is most powerfully and horrifyingly confirmed by the comments of female-targeting magazine bigwigs such as cretinous former US Weekly staffer Jill Ishkanian, who shamelessly states that she absolutely loves that her work, her publication, and her industry wantonly exploits women for profit.