'That Sugar Film': Film Review

That Sugar Film Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Madman Production

That Sugar Film Still - H 2015

Searching for less sugar, man.

Australian documentary maker Damon Gameau uses his own body as a laboratory to measure the damage caused by our dangerous addiction to high-sugar foods.

Whatever that shameless pro-sugar propagandist Mary Poppins might claim, a spoonful of the sweet stuff is shown to have zero medicinal value in this engaging Australian documentary about the dangers lurking in even overtly healthy diets. Sprinkled with starry cameos including Hugh Jackman, Stephen Fry and Brenton Thwaites, That Sugar Film is a passion project for actor-turned-director Damon Gameau, who personalizes a potentially dry science-lesson subject by spending two months on a high-sugar diet and recording the damage it causes to his physical and mental health.

Hmmm, sounds familiar? Gameau has plainly lifted his method wholesale from Morgan Spurlock's Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary Super Size Me, right down to the zippy pacing and cartoonish style. The smart twist here is that he elects only to eat food marketed as healthy, which is typically low in fat but saturated in stealth sugars. With the potential to do for health food what Spurlock did for junk food, That Sugar Film is already the highest-grossing domestically produced documentary in Australian history. Currently on limited release in the UK, it opens in the US in late July.

Gameau begins this experiment in self-abuse by adjusting his diet to accommodate 40 spoonfuls of sugar per day, the intake of the average Australian. Monitored by a team of health experts, he soon begins to suffer mood swings, lethargy and anxiety. Meanwhile, his waistline bloats and his body fat ratio increases, even though his calorie intake has not changed. In cut-away vignettes, an unbilled Jackman plots the historical rise of sugar in the manner of a music-hall entertainer, while Fry illuminates the family tree of sugary ingredients with a short cod-Shakespearean monologue.

Your enjoyment of That Sugar Film will depend on your tolerance threshhold for Gameau's wide-eyed, earnest, faux-naif screen persona. A shaggy-haired Russell Brand look-alike with a similarly puppyish need for audience adoration, he contrives to spend much of the movie dancing around in his underpants, clowning for the camera or affirming his sensitive credentials with weepy late-night Skype calls to his pregnant girlfriend Zoe Tuckwell-Smith. While most of this falls within acceptable levels of off-duty-actor narcissism, a jarringly superfluous music video finale makes Gameau's Brand-style rock star ambitions a little too plain.

In fairness, Gameau does make a few solid journalistic points. In one of the film's strongest sequences, he visits a remote aboriginal community in the Australian Outback, where nutritionists are struggling to counter the devastating health effects of a high-sugar diet. He also travels to rural Kentucky to meet a 17-year-old who has lost all his teeth due to an addiction that locals call "Mountain Dew Mouth."  Moving on to San Francisco, Gameau confronts a pro-sugar lobbyist funded by the Coca-Cola Company, but fails to land any challenging questions.

Obviously targeted at teenage viewers, with a spin-off book and online educational resources for schools, That Sugar Film contains few shock revelations for anyone with a even a casual interest in dietary health. But Gameau clearly has good intentions, and generally succeeds in sweetening a potentially bitter subject for easy public consumption.

Production company: Madman Production
Cast: Damon Gameau, Zoe Tuckwell-Smith, Hugh Jackman, Stephen Fry, Brenton Thwaites
Director, screenwruiter: Damon Gameau
Producers: Nick Batzias, Damon Gameau, Rory Williamson
Cinematographer: Judd Overton
Editor: Jane Usher
Music: Jojo Petrina
Unrated, 102 minutes