'The Mask You Live In': Sundance Review

Courtesy of The Representation Project
A cinematic sociology lecture you may want to skip

Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary chronicles the ill effects of society's definition of masculinity on young boys.

It's not easy being a man. Or even a young boy, for that matter.

That's the central point of director Jennifer Siebel Newsom's follow-up to her acclaimed 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which explored female gender identity issues. Exploring the definition of masculinity enforced on young boys by societal pressures, The Mask You Live In points to such a dizzying array of pernicious cultural influences that it's enough to make you want to throw up your hands in despair.  

Co-written by the director and Jessica Congdon, the film, which recently received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, paints a grim picture indeed, barraging us with such statistics as the fact that boys are twice as likely as girls to flunk or drop out of school; they're four times more likely to be expelled; their suicide rate is five times that of girls; they're three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD; 93 percent of boys are exposed to Internet porn before age 18, etc.

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A wide variety of academics, educators, scientists, sociologists, psychologists and doctors offer similarly alarming commentary, pointing to the ill effects of equating masculinity with such things as wealth and sexual conquest. Other interview subjects include numerous young boys and grown men who present emotional testimony about their troubled upbringing.  

The usual suspects are on trial here. We learn about the debilitating effects of violent video games, Internet pornography, sexist hip-hop culture, violence in pro and amateur sports, etc. The lessons are accompanied by a profusion of clips from such films and television shows as The Wolf of Wall Street, Glee, The Middle, The Tree of Life, Whiplash and countless others.

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The sheer accumulation of sociological postulating ultimately proves wearisome, and such proposed remedies as encouraging young boys to express their feelings and ignore gender stereotypes generally fall into the fairly obvious category. The filmmaker, the mother of three young children, certainly means well and makes many undeniably valid points. But her film too often seems to be shooting at clay targets.

Director: Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Screenwriters: Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Jessica Congdon
Producers: Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Jessica Congdon, Jessica Anthony
Executive producers: Abigail Disney, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Sarah E. Johnson, Wendy Schmidt, Regina Kulik Scully
Director of photography: John Behrens
Editor: Jessica Congdon

No rating, 97 minutes