Finally, Coca-Cola is given its own villain origin story…
A documentary revolving around the obesity epidemic, particularly in America, Fed Up suggests that, perhaps, it’s not entirely our fault. In an over-crowded subgenre of pun-titled documentaries designed to make you think twice about what you eat, can this one manage to stand out from the pack?
Rather than spending a paragraph or two regurgitating facts and figures learned from the film and then giving my own personal opinion about the state of obesity, I’ll leave it to the film to cough up those stats and yourself to form your own thoughts on the problem. Instead, I’ll focus on how well Fed Up performs as a film.
Perhaps the most significant approach that director Stephanie Soechtig’s film does to separate itself from the onslaught of current food-scare documentaries is its emphasis on the personal story. By turning a large part of its focus upon a few families whose parents, and in turn, their children, have been personally affected by obesity, Soechtig is able to engage the viewer in a much more compelling way. Most of the statistics are gotten out-of-the-way early, so that we can have more time with the families. For the most part, the subjects in these portions of the doc avoid the urge taken so often to be unlikable, meaning they not only invoke our empathy, but our sympathy as well.
The flip side of these personal stories, however, is also one of the film’s biggest drawbacks. The way that they are handled tends to lend itself to the trappings of a human interest piece for a television newsmagazine program. Some of the overly dramatic lingering footage of the families and the presence of the instantly familiar voice of Katie Couric (also an Executive Producer) as the narrator do not help towards distancing this from something that may already be sitting on your DVR at home. Couric performs solidly, but, through no fault of her own, the film would have been better-served by someone who hasn’t already spoken about this same subject at length during her day job.
One of the most controversial elements of documentaries of this type, and Fed UP is no exception, is the insistence that it’s really not our fault how we’ve turned out. In most instances, they use overblown statistical comparisons, scare tactics, and appetite-killing gross out footage of food preparation to shove its point down our Taco Bell-lined throats. But, fortunately, Fed Up generally takes a much more gentle approach in telling us that most of what we eat is no good for us, and it helps keep the film sustainable (yep) for its 90-minute runtime. They still say that the food industry is out to get us, but they still leave a little bit of room for some personal responsibility to creep through.
Of course, there’s still no questioning which side of the debate (if it really can even be called a debate anymore) the filmmakers fall on. The majority of the talking head experts interviewed here are one-sided and a few of them approach the line of being pretentious and decide to pass it right on by. It would have been nice to see a little more of the other side, just to serve as a devil’s advocate. What little we do get is certainly not given the gravitas that all sides of a debate deserve. It’s particularly, but not intentionally, comical early on when one of the supposed “bad guys” is interviewed about high-sugar beverages (i.e. soda). Couric fires a series of questions his direction, each one coming just as he starts to answer the last, and he understandably gets tripped up and needs to collect his thoughts. The camera remains on him as they presumably prepare to start again, giving the appearance that he is not confident in how own words. Letting the subject trip themselves up to negate their own point is a trick perfected by a documentarian like Errol Morris, but here it comes across a bit insincere. Moments like that happen all the time in interviews and it feels as if the natural choice here would have been to edit it out rather than keeping it to create a non-point.
Visually, however, Fed Up really shines. Plenty of on-screen graphics that are often playful break up the seriousness of the subject matter. Combined with plenty of footage of the families in their natural home environment, they ensure that we’re never bored. The editing is tight and rarely overstays its welcome and the cinematography gives it a visual motif that ties together nicely with the rest of what’s going on. The music throughout helps keep everything moving and, unlike many others, it’s never used in a too-obvious way to drive home the message.
JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:
Fed Up is largely, but not entirely, successful because the filmmakers have given us a much more personal take on a familiar subject, thereby giving us some skin in the game here. We care because it could just as easily be our own families up on the screen. You’ll learn nothing particularly new here, but it’s nice to finally get an approach that doesn’t feel the need to be entirely in our faces on a subject matter that most of us would already agree with them on. It feels more educational and less revolutionary. Is it ironic that one of the interview subjects, who happens to be a professor of nutrition, is named Marion Nestle? No, Alanis, it is not.
Review by Lead Film Critic/Writer, Jason Howard