Ryan White’s The Case Against 8, while very good, was a straightforward example of the documentary genre’s expectations – the film explained a controversial issue, gave a platform to those opposing it, and gave viewers an uplifting feeling about an encouraging future. White’s latest doc Ask Dr. Ruth, while also very good, is different. It presents facts in a way that’s much more personable.
White’s shift in filmmaking is clean, but he also has tremendous help from his subject. Dr. Ruth Westheimer is an affable sex therapist who became known for her honest advice and her advocacy in the 80s for homosexuals during the height of America’s AIDS panic. She caught the attention of television producers as well by using her warm presence and wonderful sense of humour to break discomfort surrounding discussions about sex. For its time, it was a big deal to address specific body parts and their functions publicly, and she met her fair share of disagreements with conservative viewers.
Ask Dr. Ruth spends equal time covering her career and her heartbreaking history. Through spirited animated sequences (another storytelling device that’s becoming more of a trope in modern documentaries but, nevertheless, works here), Ruth recounts her memories of surviving the Holocaust, and her childhood experience from within the walls of a Swiss orphanage after being separated from her parents. These flashbacks (which are really sweet and courteous towards Ruth) also explain her early innocent sexual curiosities with fellow boys in the orphanage, and her fascination with how everything in nature is connected.
Ask Dr. Ruth is cultivated and charming, making it this year’s first crowd-pleasing documentary.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie