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If writer-director-producer Darryl Roberts has learned anything since the first installment of his America the Beautiful trilogy, it isn’t about how to effectively shoot or structure an issue-related documentary. Ineptly produced and distractingly digressive, America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth will likely reach the same microcosm of theatrical viewers as the first two films (which together grossed under $100,000), or perhaps slightly more with the addition of VOD play.
After examining America’s fascination with beauty and body image in the earlier films, this time out Roberts is focused on exposing what he and his sources characterize as rampant objectification of girls and women in the media and everyday life, as well as the negative outcomes that result, including low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. The pic attributes the proliferation of TV advertising featuring and targeting children to the Regan-era deregulation of the broadcast industry and a widely observed tendency for TV commercials to become increasingly risque. Neither Roberts nor his sources, which include psychologists, academics and activists, manage to articulate a definitive driver behind the media’s “sexualization” of children and young adults, beyond the obvious competition for advertising dollars.
Or perhaps child beauty contests are promoting this pernicious trend? Roberts goes behind the scenes of a Georgia competition for preteen girls and speaks with former models and beauty queens in an effort to identify the role that competitive events may have on instilling a potentially inappropriate focus on body image and an ever-beckoning culture of celebrity. From this point, it apparently doesn’t take much evidence to posit that media imagery and cultural trends are contributing to teen pregnancy rates. The pornography industry also warrants a substantial amount of blame for skewing attitudes about women’s appearance and normative sexual behavior, which by extension contributes to violence against women and the perpetuation of a widespread “rape culture” due to an “epidemic of over-sexualization.”
Periodically digressing from his central theme, Roberts repeatedly pursues extended segments on relatively minor interview subjects, including Sydney Spies, an aspiring model whose provocative yearbook picture got rejected by her high school editorial board, spawning a national news story avidly promoted by the girl’s fame-focused mother. Roberts even discovers that one of his interns working on the film is recovering from an eating disorder and eagerly follows her campaign to persuade clothier Abercrombie & Fitch to adopt a less sexually suggestive advertising stance and sponsor her on a nationwide anti-bullying tour.
Roberts, who provides the film’s droning narration and isn’t shy about frequently appearing on-camera, certainly seems like a well-meaning individual, but his overly dramatized exposé approach only serves to emphasize that much of the film’s material has long ago appeared in any number of media reports and research studies. Furthermore, his dubious methodology repeatedly confuses the significance of general cultural trends with actual incidents and individuals. A shortage of credible interview subjects and the onscreen appearance of frequently unattributed factoids leaves the impression that sufficiently convincing sources weren’t available for the filmmakers to make their case.
What Roberts repeatedly and apparently unwittingly reveals is Americans’ woefully inadequate media literacy, which leaves them as vulnerable to manipulative corporate advertising as it does to his own proselytizing moviemaking. However, America the Beautiful 3 appears to be more focused on emphasizing social shortcomings than on promoting personal responsibility, even as it begs the question whether the country is facing a crisis in child-rearing among other ongoing social problems.
Although editor Lesley Kubistal has assembled a passably coherent final product, footage shot by Roberts’ crew is strictly DIY, while numerous low-res archival clips strain coherence and spotty audio repeatedly requires subtitling.
Opens: Oct. 17 (Brainstorm Media)
Production company: Harley Boy Entertainment
Director-writer-producer: Darryl Roberts
Editor: Lesley Kubistal
Music: Kahil El’Zabar
No rating, 100 minutes
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