America The Beautiful

2008, Movie, R, 105 mins


Chicago-based filmmaker Darryl Roberts' first documentary is a sprawling, messy, frustrating and impassioned examination of the psychological fallout from America's obsession with a highly artificial and all-but unattainable standard of beauty.

Roberts, a music video and commercial director who has also has two independent features, THE PERFECT MODEL (1989) and HOW U LIKE ME NOW (1993), to his credits, starts out with a confession. He once let a smart, beautiful, altogether wonderful woman get away because he secretly believed that somewhere there was someone with all her great qualities and even better looks. Years later, he asks himself why, and documented his search for the answer. The through line for Roberts' five-years-in-the-making film is Gerren Taylor, whom he met when she was a coltish 12 year old with a radiant smile and a disarming giggle. Six feet tall and rail thin, Gerren also has a mother who's determined live her own thwarted dreams of modeling through her daughter, and Roberts chronicles Gerren's ups and downs in the fashion world. Frankly, her story deserves its own feature, but Roberts has much, much more on his mind: He shines a light on sex-soaked print and TV advertising, music videos, beauty pageants, photo retouching so extreme that it makes ordinary people look like models and modesls look inhuman, celebrity worship, eating disorders, reality TV make-over shows, toxin-laden cosmetics, cosmetic surgery and the particular issues facing women of color, including pressure within their own communities to have good hair and find lighter-skinned men and women as more attractive than those with darker complexions. Much of this is clearly news to Roberts, and though it could easily sound hokey when he says in voice-over that "when I left [an outpatient plastic-surgery clinic], I called every man I knew and asked them to call every woman in their life and tell them that they're beautiful exactly the way that they are," the sheer horror in his voice obvious. And one of his most recent conversations with Gerren is truly haunting: Once so confident that one modeling agent is still stunned by the memory of her boldness, Gerren has been reduced to the same self-hatred Roberts finds in women who would quite literally die to look like her.

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL could have been made as a companion piece to Christopher Bell's BIGGER STRONGER FASTER* THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN (2008), and both come to the same conclusion: . That American men and women are increasingly driven to compare themselves to unattainable images of physical beauty and go to dangerous lengths when they come up short, and that those images are largely created and disseminated by corporations whose balance sheets depend on selling them corrections for nonexistent deficiencies. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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