Uplifting ‘Well Rounded’ Slightly Misses The Mark: BFI Flare Review

Image courtesy of bfi.org.uk

Directed by Shana Myara, Well Rounded is easily one of the most colourful entries at 2021’s BFI Flare Festival. The documentary’s mission: to tell as many plus-sized people as possible that their bodies are beautiful, and that—as Kimmortal’s ‘Sad Femme Club’ repeatedly tells us—“Baby, you are enough”.

Trigger Warning: this review contains mentions of r*pe.

Well Rounded’s central conflict is made obvious from the start. Its opening is bold and full of attitude: ‘Sad Femme Club’ blares out as burlesque dancer Steff “Ivory” Conover walks down a sunny street in skin-tight leggings, and comedian Joanne Tsung and model Lydia Okello pose in front of rainbow-painted walls. Then, the screen is invaded by such words of trollish wisdom as “Disgusting beast”, “Jabba the Hut would be proud” and “Have fun dying”. There’s a clear barrier between the defiantly queer, fat people of colour—Ivory, Joanne, Lydia and comedian Candy Palmater—and the fat-phobic, racist and heteronormative world that frequently treats them as sub-human. 

All four “fat and fierce babes” are frank about the issues they’ve faced due to their sizes, and acknowledge how these intersect with their sexualities, genders and ethnicities. Even dating within the queer community, for instance, Joanne can’t help wondering, “Do you have an Asian fetish? Are you a chubby chaser?”

This ‘talking heads’ set-up is interspersed with animations by artist Alexandra Hohner. Her work is an ideal fit: it’s cute and wholesome without sugar-coating, unpretentious without appearing amateur. The music mostly sets the right tone, too, be it sombre or uplifting. And of course, there’s the nauseatingly jolly 1962 ‘Chicken Fat’ song (“Push up every morning—ten times! […] Go, you chicken fat, go!”), now hilariously accompanied by Mohner’s animation of chickens doing aerobics.

However, Well Rounded makes no attempt to show its subjects through rose-tinted glasses. Ivory, for example, recalls being raped at gunpoint, and then victim-blamed by the police. Equally difficult to listen to is Candy’s horrific experience with a (female) gynaecologist, whose treatment of her was so callous and degrading that, as she puts it, “I felt like I had just been raped”. 

Where the documentary falters is when it veers away from its emotive appeal. With some still claiming that body positivity is tantamount to 1984-esque reality-denial, it makes sense that Well Rounded brings in Dr. Jenny Ellison and Dr. Janet Tomiyama for scholarly back-up. And they both make perfectly valid points: for instance, that the mental toll of marginalisation can trigger severe stress which in turn triggers weight gain, helping to explain trends like racial disparities in obesity rates. Still, information is often left out—for instance, the documentary neglects to mention what exactly Ellison and Tomiyama are doctors in (history and health psychology, respectively). A friendly reminder, then: sticking “Dr” in front of someone’s name doesn’t automatically make them appear more credible.

There are stylistic issues, too. ‘Sad Femme Club’ is an understandable choice, but that empowering hook does get annoying after multiple repetitions. Visually speaking, the animation clips, photos and anything that’s not the video recordings of the interviews seem to be peppered throughout the film at random. It’s as if Myara has seen other documentaries do this, but hasn’t thought much about why. And editor Winston Xin may have a lot to answer for—at one point, a clip from one of Candy’s stand-up shows cuts her interview off in the middle of a sentence. Regrettably, too, the film’s roughly one-hour runtime doesn’t leave much room to take a truly in-depth look at the many, highly complex issues it raises. Many segments leave the distinct impression that there was so much more that could have been said.

Yet despite those flaws, no-one can doubt the good intentions behind what is ultimately a bold, admirably assertive project. It’s full of heart and, true to form, its ultimate message is as positive and uplifting as Myara seems to have wanted it to be. As a queer woman with body image hang-ups of my own, I was pleasantly surprised by how relatable, how affirming I found it. And it’s easy to recommend Well Rounded to others on that basis alone.

Verdict

Well Rounded is a vibrant, short-but-sweet documentary that stumbles a little on its execution. Still, it deserves applause for its bold, uplifting vision for a queer community, and by extension a world, that views all bodies as worthy of love and respect.

Score: 6/10

Words by Emma Curzon

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