'That Sugar Film'
‘Super Size Me’ might have been a great gimmick to hinge a documentary around, but the movie also empowered people who likely shouldn’t be making documentaries or jokes to pick up a camera. The latest unfortunate soul to get in on that action is Australian Damon Gameau, who has made ‘That Sugar Film’. You can probably figure out everything you need to know about the movie from the title alone, in all the good ways and the bad. (Note: more bad.)
‘That Sugar Film’ is ostensibly an exploration of the sugar industry and the damaging effects it has caused, but it’s mostly an excuse for Gameau to trot out every possible doc and comedy gimmick he can think of. The big one is just a straight ‘Super Size Me’ knockoff. The typically sugar-free Gameau decides to go on a high sugar diet for 60 days to show its ill effects on his body. More than that, he won’t just chug down cola and pop rocks, but drink juices and eat other supermarket foods supposedly labeled as healthy that in fact have a high sugar content. The effects are pretty jarring and shown in the most annoying or desperately comedic ways possible (usually involving ill-fitting underwear or bad blue-screen effects). That sort of sums up the film in a nutshell. Gameau gets makes some interesting arguments, but packages them in a film that’s difficult to sit through thanks to irritating stylistic overkill.
In addition to his Morgan Spurlock experiment, Gameau goes on a mini world tour to dive into the evils of sugar production and consumption. He takes a trip to a sad aboriginal community that have been transformed into a pop addicts through poverty. Another sequence visits a Southern U.S. town so addicted to Mountain Dew that a roving RV dentist has been employed to help out with all the rotting tooth overkill, including a teen with brown stumps of teeth who gets some graphic emergency oral surgery. The best sequence (or at least the one that comes closest to actual journalism or documentary investigation) involves Gameau confronting scientists producing data on the positive effects of sugar who have been funded by the soft drink industry. There’s undeniably some useful information here, the trouble is all in the packaging.
As a filmmaker, Gameau has clearly never seen a stylistic gimmick that he didn’t like, and he works them all into ‘That Sugar Film’. You’ll see him superimposed naked onto toast, countless animated mini-Gameaus dancing on sugary foods, gratuitous celebrity cameos (Hugh Jackman’s is the most unnecessary, and not even Stephen Fry can bring some dignity to this affair), bad animation, high school film class editing transitions, and absolutely anything else that Gameau can think of. By the time the movie concludes with a sub-‘Mad TV’ level anti-sugar music video that was clearly produced on a budget at least equal to the rest of the film combined, you’ll just want to grab the filmmaker and tell him to calm down and focus on his message. Comedic and stylistic flourishes are indeed a nice way to elevate a boring documentary, but only if within reason. It only takes a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Given that the subject and revelations of ‘That Sugar Film’ are genuinely insightful and interesting, it’s tough to be too hard on the movie. Gameau picked the right subject at the right time. His heart is in the right place and he even gets some fascinating footage. It’s just a shame that his desperate attempts to transform the message into comedy weigh things down so much. Perhaps that’ll make the doc more palatable to children during classroom screenings, but even that seems unlikely.
Not all documentary filmmakers are comedians, nor do all issue docs need to be funny. Sure, it’s nice when non-fiction film laughs happen, but when they feel as forced as what Gameau delivered here, it almost destroys all the good work elsewhere. This time, Gameau barely gets away with his gimmicky nonsense. Hopefully, if he decides to continue pursuing this brand of doc-making, he’ll tone things down next time. It’s never a good idea for the director to be the most distracting element of his own film.