A socially agitative work that throws a light on a systematic American political failure, and the placement of private profit and special interests ahead of public health, Fed Up tackles the childhood obesity plague in a manner that roils the stomach and heart in equal measure. Narrated by Katie Couric, director Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary lays waste to the cruel, dismissive assessment that corpulence is simply a reflection of a lack of personal willpower, arguing that lethargy, eating to excess and other behaviors associated with being overweight are often the result of overwhelmed biochemistry, and not the root cause.
The film opens with a wash of news clips devoted to firmly establishing adolescent obesity as a modern epidemic. But, Fed Up notes, this spike runs largely parallel to the fitness boom of the early 1980s. What gives? In short order, the movie fixes sugar in its crosshairs, asserting that societal focus on low-calorie and fat-free products, eagerly abetted by the food industry, have missed the mark, paving the way for high fructose corn syrup and other hidden sweeteners being pumped into our processed foods in dangerous cumulative levels.
Interviews and diary-style entries from a quartet of teens struggling with their weight are terribly affecting, if somewhat sporadically and inconsistently interwoven. And the facts—a quintupling of weight-loss surgeries since 2001, up to 75 percent of national health care costs tied to treating chronic metabolic disease—are damning. But Soechtig also gets lost in the weeds. There are times when her film’s focus seems addled. Perhaps afraid of losing viewers or being accused of being too dry and academic, Fed Up eschews a direct approach in explaining 1977’s Congressional McGovern Report, which the sugar lobby stripped of restrictive language (Americans’ daily sugar intake doubled in the 25 years following), instead skipping around and returning to it intermittently.
The star power of Couric (also an executive producer on the film, along with An Inconvenient Truth’s Laurie David) gives Fed Up undeniable cachet, as well as an ample target—albeit a less polarizing one than Al Gore—for detractors. (Predictably, some of the more than 20 food industry organizations listed in the end credits as having declined interviews are now issuing statements condemning the movie, pre-release.) Yet for all the interviewees Couric’s involvement no doubt helped attract—a roster that includes former president Bill Clinton, Senator Tom Harkin, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and ex-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg—Fed Up at times cries out for a more forceful, formalized star power.
While the movie lingers on the fumbled answer of a doctor who’s accepted more than two-and-a-half million dollars from the food-industry lobby, and also details the United States’ $406 million extortion of a 2002 World Health Organization report in regards to language advising no more than 10 percent of daily caloric intake come via sugar (the reason that Food and Drug Administration-mandated labeling lists no percentage values for sugar), it suffers from a paucity of “gotcha” moments. Though we occasionally hear her asking questions, Couric never appears on camera, apart from clips of prior reportage. And while both temperamentally and occupationally she doesn’t have the same level of gladiatorial glee as someone like, say, Michael Moore, she’s a sharp interviewer and Fed Up could stand a bit more righteous boil to match the surging sympathy viewers come to feel for its vulnerable teenage subjects.
It’s only after about 50 minutes, when Fed Up takes a more prosecutorial stance, and hones its linkage of food science, governmental agriculture policy ($8.1 billion in corn subsidies over the past decade alone) and consumption, that the movie really starts punching at its weight. Fed Up details how the $1.46 billion gutted from school lunch programs under the Reagan administration, and the awarding of private cafeteria contracts to public school systems—around 50 percent of which have fast food-branded partners—have turned many schools into, as one interview subject puts it, “7-Elevens with books.” This is starting to turn around; a recently passed Congressional overhaul in school lunch vegetable portions and a six-cent-per-student funding increase, the first in 30 years, have helped. But there’s no partisan safe ground here, either; the preposterousness of classifying pizza as a vegetable (pushed by senators from states with businesses who have a grip on the frozen pizza market in schools) is rightly ridiculed, and Michelle Obama’s otherwise widely embraced “Let’s Move!” initiative is eyed for capitulation to food industry, with its touted elimination of 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace as being statistically insignificant.
One leaping-off reference point for Fed Up is the revelatory nonfiction offering Food, Inc., which did a solid $4.4 million in theaters in 2009, while also spawning a companion book of the same name. But the more apt comparisons may be the aforementioned, Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth and 2004’s Super Size Me—films that got in the mainstream zeitgeist and seemed to alter perceptions on a fundamental level. Fed Up feels like it has the same potential, in that it elicits concern and personal reflection in similar portions. Soechtig’s film has the macro, analytical surveyor’s eye of the former film. It also has a pinch of the anecdotal pop (if not outrageousness) of the latter; its truths are self-evident and easy to grasp for a layperson, in other words.
Its makers are smart enough, too, to know what criticisms are coming their way. Fed Up sizes up the pushback-playbook of anti-regulation free-marketers (with its attendant cries of “nanny state” overreach), and shrewdly assays the lack of scientific mooring in their arguments. The association the film ultimately draws, comparing food industry causality deniers to Big Tobacco CEOs paraded before Congress, lying through their teeth, isn’t necessarily kind. But neither does it seem inappropriate.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Stephanie Soechtig
Writers: Stephanie Soechtig, Mark Monroe
Narrated by: Katie Couric
Release Date: May 9, 2014