Ask Dr. Ruth is this year's Won't You Be My Neighbor? Like that film, this documentary allows us to understand a prominent pop culture figure and their work in a whole new way. The subject here is about as far from Mr. Rogers as possible, though. It's sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She was ubiquitous in the '80s and is still a common sight today. If you think you know everything there is to know about her, this movie will likely prove you wrong.
In the first scene, we see Dr. Ruth about to turn ninety and expressing delight that Amazon's Alexa knows who she is. From there, we get a relatively thorough accounting of her early life, with animated sequences helping to tell the tale. She grew up in the midst of the Holocaust, during which Nazis came and took her father away. At the age of ten, she was put on a Kindertransport train and sent to Switzerland. She would never see her parents again. Years later, Dr. Ruth joined an underground Jewish military organization where she trained as a sniper. (Insert “mind blown” emoji.)
We also learn about her three marriages, how her involvement with Planned Parenthood led to an academic interest in sexuality, and, of course, how she achieved massive fame via her radio and television programs. It was here that she proved to be a real ground-breaker, talking about sexuality with a frankness that was unprecedented on the nation's airwaves. She got away with it because there was something cheerful and non-threatening about her personality that made the explicit talk seem oddly charming.
Despite telling the facts of her personal story, Dr. Ruth is a very private person. She'll tell you about losing her parents in the Holocaust, for example, but she won't go into detail on the feelings that created in her. Director Ryan White gets around that by interviewing her children, Miriam and Joel. The latter astutely suggests that working tirelessly is a defense mechanism to keep her from thinking about her inner pain. White also puts his subject together with important people from her life, including the childhood boyfriend with whom she experienced her first kiss. In taking this approach, Ask Dr. Ruth manages to gain a peek at the things Westheimer refuses to speak about out loud.
The documentary works on two levels. It's a great examination of Dr. Ruth's career and how she changed the way Americans talk about sex. But it's also a touching portrait of a woman who turned an excess of tragedy into a desire to help others. Watching the film, we sense that her son is correct, that this perpetually upbeat sex therapist does what she does because to do otherwise would be to completely crumble. She would probably never admit that, yet White has a way of coaxing out little bits and pieces as he challenges her from behind the camera.
At first, Dr. Ruth seemed like a funny anomaly – a grandmotherly type who used words like “penis” and “vagina” without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Then she evolved into a trusted expert on sex. Ask Dr. Ruth evolves her again. Ruth Westheimer is a woman who witnessed the darkest aspects of humanity first-hand, then decided to focus the rest of her life on making people happy.
If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.
out of four
Ask Dr. Ruth is unrated, but contains frank sexual talk. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.