Review: Survivors & True Believers Look to the Future in ‘KEEP SWEET’ 

KEEP SWEET

Warren Jeffs was the Prophet of the FLDS, an offshoot of Mormonism. Jeffs demanded absolute loyalty, and instituted complete adherence to the religion, requiring strict dress codes, banishing community celebrations, and casting out followers who didn’t fall in line.

His controversial reign ended with a conviction for sexual assault with underage girls, landing him in jail for life. Jeffs’ downfall sent shock waves throughout the community, with some continuing to pledge their loyalty to him, while others turned their backs on Jeff’s and the FLDS religion altogether.

Ten years after his arrest, those left behind attempt to rebuild their community. KEEP SWEET is an allegory for the unsettling reality we are living through in America. Can we learn how to live with one another despite our different ideologies, or are we destined to live apart?


 

As the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) prophet, Warren Jeffs controlled every aspect of public and private life for his sheltered religious community. Now serving life plus twenty years for a litany of abuses, “Keep Sweet” explores what happens next for the town Jeffs reigned over and the true believers that he left behind. 

 In many ways, “Keep Sweet” feels like the second installment of a trilogy, where once the main antagonist is defeated, those that remain must sort through the detritus to find a way forward in an altered reality. Once a walled, isolated and semi-autonomous religious town, Colorado Springs is no longer only a haven for the FLDS. The influx of new arrivals is shaking up the traditional land use, politics, and mores that have remained stagnant for generations. The film seeks to discover if the community will survive this influx of diversity (using the term loosely) or if one culture will ultimately overwhelm the other. 

Director Don Argott excels in bringing humanity to both the survivors who left the FLDS and the sect’s steadfast believers that are now left adrift after its collapse. Though many choices by those portrayed in “Keep Sweet” are baffling to the extreme, the filmmakers treat everyone gently and take care that none of the subjects are made a mockery. 

By its end, I was rooting for everyone to make it past this transition period, and I am fascinated to learn which version of this town will ultimately take hold.


Streaming Exclusively on discovery+
Beginning This Wednesday, November 24, 2021


Directed by Don Argott (Believer, The Art of the Steal, Kurt Vonnegut: American Made)
Executive Produced by Rasha DrachkovitchStephanie Noonan DrachkovitchGlenn Meehan, and David Hale for 44 Blue Productions and Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce for 9.14 Pictures


Tribeca Festival 2021 review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please’ is a joyous history lesson.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please

A box of letters, held in secret for nearly 60 years, ignites a 5-year exploration into a part of LGBT history that has never been told. The letters, written in the 1950s by a group of New York City drag queens, open a window into a forgotten world where being yourself meant breaking the law and where the penalties for “masquerading” as a woman were swift and severe. Using original interviews, never-before-seen archival footage and photographs and stylized recreations, P.S. BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE reconstructs this pre-Stonewall era as Lennie, Robbie, George, Michael, Jim, Henry, Claude, Tish, and Terry—former drag queens now in their 80s and 90s—reveal how they survived and somehow flourished at a time when drag queens were both revered and reviled, even within the gay community. The government sought to destroy them, then history tried to erase them, now they get to tell their story for the first time.

There’s something both nostalgic and tangible about handwritten letters. With technology at our fingertips, they are few and far between and nearly nonexistent to certain generations. In P. S. Burn This Letter Please, a box of letters from the 50s chronicles the lives of a small LGBTQ circle of friends. Through sit-down interviews with the authors, immaculate archival footage and photos, we delve into history. This documentary is phenomenally compelling. If it doesn’t make you grin from ear to ear, you’re out of your mind.

Happiness isn’t the only reaction this film elicits. It is a lesson in oppression, one that sounds all too familiar. We hear about biological family dynamics, the difference between those who accepted and those who broke these beautiful souls down. The majority of the doc is celebratory and juicy. Oh honey, the exquisite fashion. The delicious stories. Hearing the truth from those who lived it is priceless.

I learned an entirely new vocabulary. I learned about the “who’s who” of drag and female impersonators in those years. What was it like to be a performer? Who was actually running the gay clubs? That answer will shock you. To say I was fascinated would be an understatement. The dramatic readings of the letters are to die for. To think what wasn’t included in the film leaves me wanting more. Outside of its Tribeca Festival screening, you can watch P.S. Burn This Letter Please streaming on Discovery +. You will not regret jumping into its fabulousness.

 

Review: ‘GENIUS FACTORY’ on Discovery + is mind-blowing story of money and mad science.

GENIUS FACTORY

In the 1980’s an eccentric billionaire named Robert Graham wanted to create the world’s smartest kids, so he funded the largest legal genetic experiment in human history. He felt that unintelligent people were breeding too often and smart people weren’t breeding enough, so he decided to do something about it. Today, 30 years later, the children of his eugenics experiment walk the streets of America as adults. These super babies seem normal enough, but there is a hidden struggle to understand who they are and why they came to be. They struggle to understand if the Genius Factory rewarded them or condemned them.

The founder is dead, the sperm bank is closed, and the records were burned. But now, for the first time, people who worked at the bank are ready to talk, the genius children are going to meet each other and find out who their fathers are. Never before has nature vs nurture ever been tested quite like this.

Discovery+ documentary Genius Factory tells a remarkable story. In the 1980s a wealthy optometrist became fixated on creating the world’s smartest babies through selective breeding, or as it’s more commonly known, eugenics. Now the children from the largest legal genetic experiment in the U.S. are in their 30’s. As one might expect, they have decidedly mixed feelings about their origins. 

The documentary takes viewers on a journey from the eccentric billionaire Robert Graham’s personal philosophy behind the clinic to first-person accounts of clinic operations with a colorful cast of former employees in sequences reminiscent of Tiger King. Some of the most intriguing interviews, however, are with the adult children of the genetic experiment. They grapple with the knowledge of where they came from and whether their lives measure up to the grand expectations that they were born into. 

Genius Factory is a fascinating watch that mostly does an adequate job explaining complex subjects like the dark history of genetic science, the racist personal beliefs of many of the clinic’s supporters, and how the experiment weighs into the “nature vs. nurture” debate. That being said, I question the decision to include commentary from an uncompromising supporter of eugenics here. For decades, the public debate on this issue has been closed. I am not sure it is the right choice to provide a tv credit to an unapologetic eugenicist in 2021. Overall, however, the documentary does a good job shining a light on the darker aspects of this science.       

It is telling that the first frame of Genius Factory is the legendary quote from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” As a lifelong fan of Jurassic Park, I found the introduction to be an absolute delight. Genius Factory spends the next 75 minutes detailing how much thought actually went into creating a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners and how many people thought on balance that it seemed like a good idea.

Streaming on discovery+ May 20, 2021

Directed by Daryl Stoneage (Donkey Love, Pizzicato Five, Shlomo Arigato)

Review: Extraordinarily personal doc ‘GROOMED’ comes to Discovery+ this Friday.

GROOMED

GROOMED is the devastatingly powerful story of filmmaker Gwen van de Pas as she returns to her hometown in search of answers about the man who sexually abused her as a child. To understand her ongoing traumas, Gwen travels to meet survivors, psychologists, and even a convicted sex offender. Produced by Gwen van de Pas, Bill Guttentag, and Dylan Nelson, GROOMED addresses a common yet little understood manipulation type called ‘grooming’, how to recognize it, and how to stop it. What begins as an exploration into grooming becomes a dramatic journey where Gwen faces unexpected revelations in her case, finally finds her anger, and boldly confronts the evil we’d rather ignore. Executive produced by Blumhouse in association with Yellow Dot Films.

Gwen Van De Pas’s trauma has never gone away. As an 11 year old, an older swim teammate groomed her. The term was one she only learned 20 years after the abuse occurred. To regain power, she returns to Holland to decide whether or not to report her abuser. Her life cannot move forward without healing. The insight Gwen gains from sitting down with her parents are very impactful. They’re able to explain that when at 17 years old Gwen told them about her abuse that they were at a crossroads based on her mental health. Their guilt is palpable. As a parent myself, I completely understand their desire to protect Gwen from self-harm first. This is not simply about her healing. This film is about the healing of everyone around her. Sexual abuse infiltrates entire families.

The structure of the doc takes us through the grooming bullet points one by one, through the words of a convicted sex offender and behavioral experts. (1. Target The Victim 2. Gain The Family’s Trust 3. Build A Relationship 4. Sexualize The Relationship 5. Maintain Control) She interviews other victims, of all ages, sex, and backgrounds. Not only is this a part of understanding just how pervasive sexual abuse is, but it was a chance for Gwen to feel less isolated for once. Speaking with psychologists, her ultimate goal is to finally report him, but she is rightfully afraid. The evidence she kept still has a profound emotional stronghold. Watching her battle the words and the intentions of her abuser is heartbreaking. She feels complicit and he groomed her to think that way. In their interviews, other victims express how it has affected them physically. Hospitalization, eating disorders, disassociative habits, physical intimacy, panic attacks are just the tip of the trauma iceberg.

This incredibly personal and powerful doc is something parents need to watch. It’s a film survivors should watch. Reporting is not easy. Retraumatization is one of the key factors in every single one of these cases. Gwen Van De Pas was brave. Groomed is her victory lap. If we could all just have a fraction of her courage, we might be able to prevent others from becoming victims. The cycle has to stop.

Streaming Exclusively on discovery+
March 18, 2021

Review: ‘My Beautiful Stutter’ speaks to everyone.

MY BEAUTIFUL STUTTER

My Beautiful Stutter follows five kids who stutter, ages 9 to 18, from all over the United States and all walks of life, who, after experiencing a lifetime of bullying and stigmatization, meet other children who stutter at an interactive arts-based program, The Stuttering Association for the Young, based in New York City. Their journey to SAY find some close to suicide, others are withdrawn and fearful, exhausted and defeated from failed fluency training, societal pressures to not stutter or the decision to remain silent. Over the course of a year, we witness firsthand the incredible transformation that happens when these young people of wildly different backgrounds experience for the first time the revolutionary idea at the heart of SAY: that it’s okay to stutter.

This heartfelt doc is incredibly eye-opening for anyone who doesn’t have information about stuttering. While we learn about the neurological reasons, more importantly, we learn about the social-emotional effect on children. Bullying is already such a pervasive issue. Add on stuttering and it can really be a recipe for an exponentially challenging childhood. These beautiful, intelligent, glorious kids should not be “fixed”. They aren’t a problem. It is society that should be more accepting.

Growing up stuttering, Taro Alexander wanted to create a program to improve the lives of kids who stutter now. He understood the weight of feeling viewed as different. He founded SAY The Stuttering Association for the Young. Then came CAMP SAY. CAMP SAY is a safe environment where kids of all ages can come and learn, play, make friends, and be accepted for exactly who they are. The film features the summer of 2015. The kids have group therapy sessions, not necessarily clinical, but it allows them to share their feelings without judgment. Outside of all the typical camp activities like sports, ceramics, campfires, and swimming, Alexander utilizes theatre and creative writing to break down their barriers.

The film features members of CAMP SAY community. Juliana, now graduating from the program uses singing to boost her confidence. Malcolm’s stutter was triggered after witnessing a violent act. His passion is baseball. This is his first year at camp. Sarah and Emily are best friends at CAMP SAY. They explain how important it is to be able to connect with someone who can genuinely relate and to finally realize that they’re not alone. Travis is one of the counselors at camp. He also uses music to feel uninhibited by his stutter. Will features his college entrance essay. The gorgeous, astute, poetic writing in that essay undoubtedly wowed any essay reader. My Beautiful Stutter brings together footage from home, camp, and beyond to immerse you into a world where communication is a double-edged sword.

One of the greatest days at camp happens when an older camper is paired with a younger one and they answer questions like, “What’s your favorite subject in school?” or “Something I’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had a chance to yet…” Watching these kids grow is profound. The amount of sadness they carry with them every single day will stay with you. As a former teacher and current parent of a child on the spectrum, it was disheartening to hear that these kids all recall their teachers not understanding how their stutter affects them emotionally. The stories of constantly being cut off by others must be ceaselessly frustrating. Frankly, they all feel exhausted.

The timing of My Beautiful Stutter is incredible considering President Biden stuttered as a child. He actively reaches out to kids across the country, even giving them his cell phone number so he can pass on techniques on how to ease their frustration. Kids and parents alike can learn more about Taro Alexander, SAY and CAMP SAY here. My Beautiful Stutter is an important watch. This is a family film. Make it a movie night. Sit down with your loved ones and feel the unadulterated love these children bring to the world. As Emily says in the film, “Stop and Listen.” Solid advice.

Premiering Exclusively on discovery+ This Thursday
March 11, 2021

Directed by: Ryan Gielen (Stop The Bleeding, The Graduates)
Produced by: Michael Alden and Ryan Gielen

Executive Produced by:
Paul Rudd, Mariska Hargitay, Peter Hermann, Patrick James Lynch, George Springer

Since 2001, SAY has offered comprehensive and innovative programs that address the physical, social and emotional impacts of stuttering.

**Film Festival Awards**
Best Documentary at Boston International Kids Film Festival
Audience Award Best Documentary at the Rhode Island Film Festival
Best Documentary at the Golden Door Film Festival
Best Documentary at Doc Sunback Film Festival
 

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RT: 90 Minutes