More than 11 years following the release of Super Size Me, documentary filmmakers around the world are still copying Morgan Spurlock’s concept. The latest is Australian actor Damon Gameau (best known here for one episode of How I Met Your Mother), who is writer, director, producer and star of That Sugar Film, a flashy feature in which he takes on a personal health experiment involving the consumption of sugar similar to that of Spurlock’s McDonald’s diet.
Over the course of a less-determined time, Gameau lives on a diet inclusive of his country’s supposed daily average of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day. He doesn’t eat candy or cakes or anything so obviously composed of sugar, rather he’s out to show the normalcy of high sugar content of everyday meal foods such as cereal, yogurt, juices, sauces, etc., and how quickly they add up to an intake that contributes to liver problems, weight gain, psychological issues and more. It’s quite similar to Spurlock’s results.
That Sugar Film looks a lot more expensive than Super Size Me, though (which looks to be only a matter of $450,000 vs. $65,000) thanks to a lot of visual effects, an overproduced music video portion and special appearances by higher-profile actors Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry, each of whom shows up early on for a single expository presentation. The effects consist of having clips of interviewed experts cleverly embedded into food packaging and other props, a gimmick that often does a disservice to the info they share.
In fact, all the pizzazz of That Sugar Film makes it come off as trying a little too hard, maybe with the hope that it can better attract the attention of the people who most need this issue doc by making it like the visual equivalent of a sweet treat. One of the effects of high sugar consumption is a mental sluggishness and lack of focus, after all. Given that it lacks much fresh information you can’t already get in a ton of other food/nutrition docs of the past decade — I think the only bit I hadn’t heard previously was a connection made between sugar consumption and the rise in materialism — maybe it’s just for the audience not already on board anyway.
For those of us who do see all of the docs (or at least the majors addressing the food industry, such as Food, Inc., Fed Up, Forks Over Knives and of course Super Size Me), there are some worthwhile moments in That Sugar Film. One segment has Gameau visiting an Aborigine community that has tried to turn around its population’s health crisis by giving up Coca-Cola and curbing its overall sugar intake. We meet a fabulous and remarkably determined local who goes by the nickname “Chainsaw” because, as he says, “he cuts through the bullshit” in his mission to save his people.
That and a sequence where the filmmaker travels to Kentucky to learn about “Mountain Dew mouth” and the horrible soda addictions that begin in poor American communities for most kids at age two and result in full dentures worn by teens, are original slices of life, human-interest stories that we probably haven’t seen before (the Kentucky portion does cover ground that’s been seen on the news in the U.S. before, but not widely). Gameau’s own endeavor is itself an engaging emotional narrative, too, as he incorporates his home life, his pregnant girlfriend and eventually their newborn child. But from his healthy-living partner to the doctors he brings into his experiment, it’s very, very reminiscent of Spurlock’s, minus the clash with a huge corporation.
For American audiences at least, Gameau also might be too much of an outsider. We can’t fully identify with someone referencing so many foreign brands and food items as he does and properly relate our daily diets to that. And when he comes to our turf, he addresses the bad habits and offerings and the obesity epidemic and other negative issues involving the health of our nation and the fact that we’re the “mecca” of processed food and misconceptions about high fructose corn syrup and fruit smoothies that all feels like it comes from a certain derogatory POV of looking in and downward. I’m not saying it’s an unfair position or angle, just that it won’t resonate well with the moviegoers it needs to reach here.
Otherwise, the entertainment production value of That Sugar Film is very easily digestible, and the documentary mostly works on its own terms in spite of a lack of consistency of content — the movie stars that show up early and then never return is one major structural issue; the varied methods of presenting expository and evidential interviews with experts is another. If it can be sold to the right audience, it will be informative. I don’t see it affecting any change here or in any other country, but at the very least it could make some people feel mildly guilty about eating Goobers while watching it.
This review was originally published on July 31, 2015.