'That Sugar Film' is more bland than sweet

That Sugar Film | C+

Oh what Super Size Me has wrought. There's a long list of cautionary food documentaries (Fed Up, Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, etc.) inspired by Morgan Spurlock's self-administered shock fast-food experiment and each has, in its way, sought to lay bare the reckless dietary habits (and industrial practices) of the modern American. Have any of them significantly changed our obesity generating, factory farm system? Last I checked, Chicken McNuggets and Big Gulps were still a culinary staple.

One has to wonder why documentaries have become such a popular outlet for public advocacy and deep dive investigations into difficult subject matters. Isn't that supposed to be the domain and function of The Fifth Estate? Sadly, modern journalism is still struggling to find a place in the digital, corporately controlled marketplace of ideas. The feeling among many is that the current media landscape doesn't value persuasive and comprehensive reporting. The ability to speak truth to power has been co-opted by brand marketing, infotainment, and industry consolidation.

Stepping into this gap, pop-science docs and books have sought to address the undeniably frightening impact of diets determined by industrial interests that pit big-scale profits against public health and mortality. But while docs like Food, Inc. and books like Fast Food Nation have managed to sound alarm bells loudly enough to influence public debate and policy, most merely preach to the converted.

Aussie writer-director and dad-to-be Damon Gameau hopes to move the dietary needle a bit further with his hip and enthusiastic That Sugar Film — the movie that inspired filmmaker/professional nerd Kevin Smith to lose 85 pounds ... and counting. Cribbing directly from Spurlock, the hunky and handsome Gameau turns himself into an on-screen guinea pig, changing his diet for six weeks to emulate the average sugar intake of a typical Australian male. That means consuming 40 teaspoons a day of the stuff. But rather than filling his fridge with pop and sweets, Gameau limits his intake to those foods that are marketed as "healthy," like low-fat yogurts, juices, cereals, and granola bars. Calorie-wise, he eats just a little more than the daily recommended allowance. For anyone who hasn't read Michael Pollan, the results are surprising. Gameau's waistline starts expanding almost as quickly as his pregnant wife's. And he feels like crap. As it turns out, many of the foods we fool ourselves into believing are healthy are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup.

Gameau is an infectiously hammy storyteller who uses zippy computer effects and celebrity cameos — Hugh Jackman, Stephen Fry reciting a Dr. Seuss-style poem about sugar — to deliver attention-grabbing factoids and concepts. But his film doesn't really deliver anything new or revelatory about the sugar industry's role in fostering obesity, diabetes, and addiction. It'll probably find tween-age audiences the most receptive to messaging.

That said, some of That Sugar Film is undeniably compelling. Learning how the "low-fat" diet was institutionalized by corporate marketing teams in order to introduce new sugar products is disturbing, and meeting scientists funded by the soft-drink industry makes one understand why the public doubts the claims of serious and ethical researchers.

But those moments are overshadowed by Gameau's shallow treatment of his subject. A foray into the aboriginal outback starts promisingly enough. The Mai Wiru, a council created to help maintain food stability for the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, has seen its funding cut and an increasingly reliance on cheap, sugar-laden products. The results were new and dramatic health issues, prompting action by the village elders. But instead of digging into the story like a good documentarian, Gameau is more of a showman, milking the situation for pathos rather than context and information. Similarly, he introduces us to a Kentucky teen who claims he drinks a 12-pack of Mountain Dew every day. He then shows us the teen's mouth full of rotted teeth. It's a great and icky visual, but without a more thoughtful inquiry into the soft-drink habits of teens it comes off as more of a gimmick than anything else.

All this would be forgivable — to a point — if Gameau's wrap-up weren't so self-congratulatory. Putting the focus back on himself, he charts out a proper and truly healthy daily diet (his own) before launching into an amusing Flight of the Conchords-style ditty that puts him at the head of a parade. Our host's goofy (if voluble) charm, in the end, turns an important subject into a condescending ode to vanity. And though That Sugar Film's message is one well worth hearing, there are better, more informed messengers out there.

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