Ask Dr. Ruth
It would be difficult to make a boring documentary about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the world’s most famous sex therapist. Even with that in mind, Ask Dr. Ruth takes her fascinating life and brings it context.
Jumping back and forth along Westheimer’s personal history, Ask Dr. Ruth makes an effort to show us not only where she came from, but how she shaped the world around her. Going back to her birth, her years in exile from the Nazis during the Holocaust, her years in the army, coming to America, and her loves and losses along the way, we see what we can only assume is quite a wide swatch of Ruth’s life.
The flashback sequences in Ask Dr. Ruth are animated, with voiceovers telling the story of her life. It might be tempting for a filmmaker to twist her story into a tragic tale and paint her as a victim of circumstance, or a heroine in the face of an evil force, but the doc neither glamorizes nor mythologizes her life. She’s shown as a strong woman, doing what she can to get through the only life she knows.
Those unfamiliar with Dr. Ruth’s profession will learn quickly that her tiny stature and friendly smile make the perfectly disarming vehicle to talk openly about sex. In an early montage of talk show footage, we see that Ruth is often the one making the hosts blush with her well-known openness about sex and romance. Ask Dr. Ruth goes a step beyond inundating the audience with her supposedly jarring candor by contextualizing her frank talk within the AIDS epidemic and feminist rhetoric. Nothing is apolitical within her world.
Beyond her history, some of the most endearing footage in Ask Dr. Ruth comes in the present-day scenes. Just shy of her 90th birthday, Ruth shows no signs of slowing down. She orders director Ryan White to get a shot of how fast she can walk, which not only shows us that she’s still calling the shots, but also that she wants to continue to surprise everyone.
The one thing Ask Dr. Ruth lacks is distance from the subject of the documentary, which results in a lack of criticism. Her granddaughter gets a little bit of screen time debating feminism with her – specifically the definition of the term – but that’s the only place where anyone really questions Ruth. This is not an editorial examination of Dr. Ruth; it’s a love fest.
Dr. Ruth was a staple of 1980s and 1990s television and radio, and was a major cultural figure in the fight for being more open about sexuality. Ask Dr. Ruth is a fitting love letter. The film was produced as a Hulu original and will begin streaming in June following a theatrical release in May.