Review by Sean Boelman
Molly Dworsky and Dave Newberg’s documentary The Ringmaster sounds on paper like it is going to be a feel-good biographical documentary of one of the world’s most successful onion ring makers. But soon after pressing play, viewers will find that there is a lot more to this story than expected, as it is a messy yet compelling exploration of the filmmaking process.
The movie tells the story of a filmmaker who initially sets out to make a documentary about what he considers to be some of the world’s best onion rings and the local celebrity who made the recipe but soon finds himself on a quest to make the delicious snack world famous. And while the first thirty or so minutes hit a lot of the common beats for the chef biography, the remaining hour is quite unique.
A significant part of the film’s intrigue comes from the fact that it is trying to figure out who the subject really is. Obviously, there is a lot of respect for Larry Lang, but whether he is the hero of this story or a victim of the manipulative ways of the other subjects is the main question of the movie.
Dworsky and Newberg paint Zachary Capp in a morally ambiguous light. On one hand, he’s a fan of Lang’s onion rings that simply wants to spread the word about his favorite food and the person who is responsible for it. But the film also suggests that there may be a more malicious and self-serving intention, even if unconsciously.
The movie is at its best when it is exploring the ethical aspects of documentary filmmaking. There has been a great deal of discussion among critics and theorists about the role of the observation effect in documentaries. And here, Dworsky and Newberg directly bring into question the role that Capp has in the progression of the story’s events.
At times, the film feels a little hyperactive, and that results in the narrative feeling a bit rushed. Clocking in at under ninety minutes in length, there was definitely a bit of room for the movie to breathe and expand on some of its ideas. And the fourth-wall-breaking narration doesn’t exactly tie the film together as cohesively as it should.
Still, it’s clear that Dworsky and Newberg are assembling something out of scraps, and for that, it’s pretty impressive. At every step of the way, the production threatened to fall apart but the filmmaking team was able to rein everything back in. There are multiple layers here, each utilizing different types of footage, and it’s some really effective storytelling.
The Ringmaster definitely isn’t the movie one would expect from a story like this, but it’s absolutely intriguing and interesting. This is a surprisingly entertaining film that will definitely satisfy your craving for a substantial documentary.
The Ringmaster hits VOD on October 6.