Obesity rarely gets a human face, which is understandable because we’re all too busy looking at the gut. Dismissively, an obese person is just someone with little to no self-control, and their physical appearance serves as either something to gross us out and/or a comment on America’s socio-economic issues in regards to the manufacturing and selling of junk food. Mark Phinney‘s Fat focuses on the individual beneath the cellulite, and mostly hits the mark when it comes to showing the pain and self-loathing that creates a vicious cycle. It may not be particularly insightful, but it still feels honest until it starts being undone by a tired storytelling turn, and forcing a dramatic structure that lessens the emotional impact.
Ken (Mel Rodriguez) is horribly obese. He needs a breathing machine at night, and suffers from gout, bad blood pressure, and a host of other health problems. He also uses the death of his mother and a break-up from his girlfriend as excuses to keep eating even though those events happened over a year ago, and he was fat before they happened. His obesity has also led to social problems where he’s not a hermit, but can no longer behave like a normal member of society. As a result, like many overweight/obese people, he eats his feelings and the problem gets worse.
As someone who has been in Ken’s shoes, I can relate to his difficulties and Phinney does a good job of not only hitting the emotional mark, but taking it even further. I never had Ken’s social problems like when he blows up after a pretty girl casually mentions she has a boyfriend. Phinney can also take it further because Ken is seriously obese (I was classified as obese on a weight chart, but I was nowhere near Ken’s morbid obesity), and the director and Rodriguez don’t hold back on just how grotesque he can be.
In the first two minutes, we get a shot of Ken’s ass, watching him on the toilet, and then wiping. Granted, that would be gross to see regardless of the person’s weight, but Phinney knows he can get away with it in the first two minutes because no one is going to walk out that quickly. We’re disgusted with Ken, and then it’s up to Rodriguez to humanize his character. He does it wonderfully. He pushes right up to the borderline of Ken’s behavior, but we always know that this comes from an inner pain, and feeding that pain is only a drive-thru away. It’s rare that anyone would have to perform lewd acts in a back alley for a cheeseburger. There’s no escape and Fat conveys the helplessness of someone who’s not a bad person, but a person who is making himself worse physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Then the movie flips to where Ken is suddenly trying to turn his life around, and it’s a bit jarring although it’s still honest. People who have tried to lose weight will recognize the “get your life together” moment where they try to sort everything else out at once—get a trainer, get a girl, get to a new life, etc. But it’s so fragile, and the movie shares that fragility, and also ends up shattering when the honesty fades and the story falls into a predictable conflict. The dialogue may feel unscripted, but the plot beats are by the numbers, and even then, it seems like the movie no longer understands why Ken is so anguished. Health issues are obviously part of Ken’s problems, but there’s almost always a deeper, emotional root to morbid obesity, and Fat forgets that Ken’s issue is the pain of loss, not a fear of death.
Fat still manages to hold together long enough to keep its emotional impact intact, and it serves as a cautionary tale without ever feeling preachy. It can disgust, depress, and frustrate, but it doesn’t patronize its audience. Phinney’s film isn’t designed to be motivational but observational. The distance provided by the documentary style makes the strong performances come to us. It’s only when the plot forces a maudlin conclusion that Fat can only mirror the pain of obesity by (to borrow a lyric from Nirvana) taking comfort in being sad.
For all of our TIFF 2013 coverage, click here. Here are links to all of my TIFF 2013 reviews: