Another angle on a troubling argument put forth by many docs in recent years — that the FDA and other agencies don’t do nearly as much as you think they do to protect us — Jon Whelan’s Stink! pinches its nose at a loophole that will be news to many: Even companies required by law to label their ingredients can sneak scores of hazardous chemicals into their products under the generic group label “fragrance.” Though Whelan’s debut filmmaking effort wears some of its homemade characteristics proudly, it wrangles more than enough credible interviewees to make its points, and should make a little noise in limited release before heading to video.
While the recipes for the fragrances that distinguish your lemony dishwashing soap from your herbal shampoo and berry lip balm can be composed of either plant extracts or manmade chemicals, the film explains, the latter are cheaper and therefore used in practically everything Americans buy — not just cosmetics, but clothing: Embracing the well-worn personal-mission documentary conceit, Whelan says his investigation of the fragrance industry started when he was unable to get the tween-beloved Justice clothing brand to reveal what kind of perfume they had used in the pajamas he bought for his daughters.
Savvy doc fans may be skeptical of this starting point, and may feel that Whelan’s frequent references to the girls’ mother, whose death from breast cancer colors the film’s public-health agenda, overemphasize the film’s personal side. (By supplying his own not-exactly-melodious narration, Whelan ensures we’ll remember who made the thing.) But the homework he does is impressive, gathering perspectives from entrepreneurs, scientists and advocacy groups who work for increased transparency and regulation.
As one of these talking heads puts it while describing the fiasco of FEMA’s toxic Katrina trailers, “we’re the dumping ground” for chemicals even China won’t allow in its own products. That’s thanks in large part to 1976’s flawed Toxic Substances Control Act, which grandfathered in tens of thousands of existing chemicals, presuming their safety without requiring proof. Many other countries, Whelan explains, employ the Precautionary Principle, insisting that when there is suspicion something might do harm, manufacturers must prove it is safe before selling it to consumers.
That sounds awfully reasonable, unless you run a multinational company whose business is selling chemicals. Whelan’s idea to stalk lawmaker-turned-chemical industry lobbyist Cal Dooley Roger & Me-style may not bear much fruit cinematically (such sequences are rarely as fun for viewers as for the filmmakers who get to play bully and feel righteous about it), but his point, that Americans should be able to know what exactly we’re buying, is well worth making.
Production company: Net Return Entertainment
Director: Jon Whelan
Screenwriters: Jon Whelan, Bryan Gunnar Cole
Producers: Jon Whelan, Krista Saponara
Director of photography: Daniel Carter
Editor: Bryan Gunnar Cole
Music: Erin O’Hara
No rating, 90 minutess