All great artists have the occasional failure, and unfortunately the Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu has another one with Misconception. The filmmaker best known for In the Realms of the Unreal and the short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien previously showed promise of being a great gift to the issue doc with Last Call at the Oasis, a highly entertaining yet still pressing look at the global water crisis that I still constantly champion (and for which I was even blurbed on the poster wrongly calling it a definite Oscar contender). This follow-up feature is another Participant Media production, meaning it too is meant to be working a cause, but what cause isn’t entirely clear. There’s a cohesive theme to the hodgepodge that makes up the film — overpopulation — yet there is no unifying point. Is it a problem? Is it not a problem? The doc doesn’t seem to know.
Not that nonfiction films need to take a side or be certain about anything, but this isn’t an abortion doc where two perspectives are presented as a fair and balanced treatment. With narration from actress Kyra Sedgwick, Misconception begins as a conventional talking head job raising the supposed issue of the planet heading towards cataclysmic overcrowding and quickly dispels fears that this is even in our future. Hans Rosling is showcased, partly via his popular TED Talk on global population growth and development, talking of the fallacy that Earth is still experiencing an exponential increase, pointing to a plateauing of numbers aided by China’s one-child law and the general average family size being around two children for every two parents. If the message is that we shouldn’t worry anymore, great, that’s accomplished in the first few minutes.
But it turns out this is kind of an anthology film made up of three discordant doc shorts that aren’t interesting on their own or as a collective whole. Each “chapter” is a story somewhat tied to the world population topic, and they vary in tone from one another as well as the linking thread involving Sedgwick’s dispensable voiceover and Gosling’s educated guesses. First is a profile on a random Chinese guy approaching the age of 30 who wants to fall in love before that big milestone birthday. Too bad his country’s birthrate rule led to more males than females in his generation and so it’s especially tough for romantics like him who won’t just let himself be set up by his parents. The second part follows a Canadian woman lobbying UN diplomats on a pro-life agenda. And the third chapter spotlights a journalist in Uganda focused on her nation’s staggering number of unwanted children, many of them abandoned.
In another doc, these three sections would be intertwined so they don’t seem as empty on their own. But they’re likely separated because they’re so aesthetically different, each with its own inharmonious tone and music choices. None of them tells a complete story, but the first one (partly shot by Last Train Home director Lixin Fan) is the most futile. It’s hard to get through it and onto the next chapters, and then those are not worth the effort anyway. The final section’s protagonist at least comes off as an important person, helping orphans and mothers and the efforts for family planning in Uganda, which we’re told has the most severe population incline. Still, her significance can be frustrating because she’s a reporter but also basically the hero of her own reports. In a way she’s the very opposite of Yu, a nonfiction storyteller with one very specific objective point.
Misconception goes beyond its messy triptych structure during its epilogue with Gosling bringing up all new questions and ideas in the final five minutes, supported and illustrated with techniques not already employed over the prior hour and a half. It’s particularly annoying because this is the first moment where the film actually offers some intriguing information, and then it just ends right there. Of course, it still barely relates to any of the stuff we’ve seen up until that point. This not just an ineffective doc but a disappointment all around, with the most uniforming aspect being that it’s got faults in every element of its making. On the bright side, we’ve seen Yu come back from bad films before, though in the past her blunders were with other types of films (the sports comedy Ping Pong Playa, for instance). This one is especially baffling because she’s mastered the issue doc form before. Hopefully she will again.