Damon Gameau, the writer-director and subject of That Sugar Film, is a generally healthy man. He exercises on his homemade gym a couple of times a week and has been persuaded by his pregnant girlfriend to start eating smarter and leading a fitter lifestyle. But Gameau wants to know: Is sugar really that bad for you? With a daughter on the way, he decides that, for six weeks, he will shift his high-fat, low-carb, no-sugar diet to increase his sugar intake to 40 teaspoons of sugar a day—the average amount for a typical, Australian male. The catch is that he can only eat foods that are marketed as healthy, like low-fat yogurts, juices, or energy bars, in an effort to uncover whether these items, which are commonly integrated into diets, are also poisonous to the body. Come to find out, they are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and, just as Gameau anticipated (and needed for the lure of his film), he starts to pack on the weight and see significant changes to his body composition in just a small amount of time.
If that sounds quite similar to Super Size Me—well, it is. In fact, Gameau structures his film almost identically to Morgan Spurlock’s hatchet job by planting himself at the front of the proceedings, replete with instances of him being weighed and having his tummy measured. These sequences, unremarkable as they are, at least take Gameau away from public spaces, where his camera can’t help but locate the most extreme cases of sugar abuse. In Kentucky, he meets a teenager who claims to drink a 12-pack of Mountain Dew a day and has lost his teeth because of it. Among indigenous Australian populations, sugar is causing significant health concerns. The film explains how funding for Mai Wiru, a council created to insure food security and maintenance within the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, has been slashed, but instead of bringing hard evidence or seeking an answer to the cuts, Gameau prefers lingering on the faces of these peoples as they stare directly into the camera, obviously posed so that the filmmaker could get the shot he wanted. Like many an ethnologist before him, Gameau milks the community’s tribulations for syrupy pathos.
Some of the information within That Sugar Film is compelling; Gameau explains how a low-fat diet was institutionalized by corporate advertising, allowing for the infiltration of excessive, disguised sugar amounts into mass-produced food items. However, for anyone who’s ever heard of Michael Pollan or has been following these public debates for the last several years, none of these claims are new or offer revisionist information that would necessitate reopening the case file. Compound the film’s trivial dealings with Gameau’s penultimate gesture of self-congratulation as he walks us through a proper (read: his own) daily diet, and one senses that all of these kinds of documentaires, where the filmmaker is his own subject, are finally aggrandizing shrines made by artists trying to erect something out of nothing. Gameau is thin again by the end, but instead of thoroughly explaining the alternative dietary provisions that helped him achieve his reduced weight, he elects to stage a parade with himself as the grand marshal, goofing and dancing in various costumes. Turns out, the film has also been thin all along.