'Ask Dr. Ruth': Film Review | Sundance 2019
America's favorite diminutive sex therapist gets a crowd-pleasing documentary treatment that traces her life from Holocaust survivor to beloved media figure.
After Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the unexpected sensation of last winter's Sundance Film Festival, there's a temptation to look for the next diminutive Semitic firebrand, a worthy successor as liberal icon and loving bubbe.
Into that fray marches Ryan White's new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, which ably and reasonably positions Dr. Ruth Westheimer to be something like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of sex.
Ask Dr. Ruth is already set for release through Magnolia Pictures and Hulu, and although it runs out of creativity well before the end of its 100-minute running time, it still coaxes ample good will out of the remarkable life and boundless energy of its 4-foot-7 heroine.
If you're of a certain age, Dr. Ruth seems like she's been a part of the media landscape forever, dispensing unflinching sexual advice and making late-night talk show hosts blush with her enthusiastic candor. It's doubtful that a statuesque blonde with a kittenish purr and a movie star husband would have possessed the longevity for four decades of sex counseling, but the diminutive Dr. Ruth, with her thick German accent and utter lack of regard for conventional niceties, started off wildly ahead of the sociological curve as the host of the radio show Sexually Speaking back in 1980. She has remained relevant and prescient as a voice of acceptance, sexual positivity and personal freedom all emanating from the visage of a smiling grandmother with no sense of boundaries.
Dr. Ruth's public life turns out to be the least interesting piece of her story. The first half of the documentary is artistically expansive and frequently emotional, while the second half is a laundry list.
Ask Dr. Ruth is at its best as it introduces young Karola Ruth Siegel, born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928 and delivered to an orphanage in Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport at the age of 10. White, whose prior credits include Netflix's The Keepers and HBO's The Case Against 8, has latched onto one photograph of a spectacularly sad-eyed Young Dr. Ruth and used it as the basis for compelling animated sequences that fill in the gaps in her childhood along with excerpts from Dr. Ruth's diaries. Through those youthful German musings, we experience Ruth's growing realization that she may never hear from her parents again, a formative tragedy the documentary links to her adult desire for love and for physical contact.
White accompanies Dr. Ruth on a series of journeys, starting at the Washington Heights apartment that has been her home for over 40 years. Ever content to follow a few yards behind the absurdly spry Dr. Ruth, who celebrated her 90th birthday at the climax of production last summer, White lets his subject fill in whatever biographical details she chooses to and Dr. Ruth is, unsurprisingly, unreserved in her frankness. Without any question, the doc's highlight is Ruth visiting with childhood boyfriend Walter, an absolutely lovely interaction in which she makes her octogenarian ex and his current wife squirm with declarations like, "We didn't have sex, but we hugged and we kissed," before giggling and telling Walter she still remembers how those innocent kisses tasted. I'm not sure how many documentary subjects could make a scene like this play out with such consummate sweetness, but that's just part of Dr. Ruth's charm. And yes, the doc features Dr. Ruth talking about how she lost her virginity and yes, it's accompanied by animation and yes, it's also weirdly sweet.
Much of Dr. Ruth's personal arc is in those early years of her life and White's journeys with her go from Switzerland to Israel, where she went after World War II and even trained as a sniper. Yes, Dr. Ruth trained as a sniper, though the inference seems to be that she never actually utilized those skills even if she boasts she could hit her targets most of the time. A trip to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, complete with research into the fate of her parents, offers another peak.
Once Dr. Ruth makes it to the U.S. and begins accumulating her academic credentials and becomes the perpetual motion machine of non-stop book-writing, teaching, media hits and public appearances that we know today, the story loses a clear arc and settles into a series of appealing, familiar clips and enthusiastic affirmations. Dr. Ruth's reputation as a particular kind of crusader for abortion rights, gay rights and AIDS awareness and research has been well-earned and certainly bears repeating and reminding, even if this is a dry way to do it. I also wouldn't have minded a little bit more exploration of the contention leveled in an archival news report by at least one of Dr. Ruth's peers that her approach to on-the-fly counseling, occasionally in lieu of in-depth counseling, runs the risk of being reckless. There's no room to pause the hero worship here.
I said "a particular kind of crusader" because Dr. Ruth doesn't want to be thought of as political. Just because you may be able to guess her party affiliation doesn't mean she's eager to share her thoughts on Donald Trump or whether the direction of the country concerns her. She wants to be able to speak for and to all people who need her services. This is fair, though it's also plenty endearing to watch her exasperated daughter and granddaughter try to force Dr. Ruth to admit that she's a feminist.
Maybe we don't look at Dr. Ruth and impose the weight of the world on her slight shoulders in the way that we do with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Still, Ask Dr. Ruth has no trouble arguing that this spirited immigrant, who has happily played up her own persona for humor and silliness, has had a tangible impact that goes well beyond the punchlines or the explicit individualized advice.
"I have an obligation to live large and to make a dent in this world," Dr. Ruth says late in the film. Well, a Sundance crowd-pleaser is bound to help her cause.
Production companies: Delirio Films, Neko Productions, Tripod Media
Distributors: Hulu, Magnolia Pictures
Director: Ryan White
Producers: Rafael Marmor, Ryan White, Jessica Hargrave, Christopher Leggett
Executive producer: Peggy Drexler
Director of photography: David Paul Jacobson
Composer: Blake Neely
Editor: Helen Kearns
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)