Review by Sean Boelman
After chronicling the lives of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and civil rights activist Pauli Murray, documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West set their eyes on legendary chef Julia Child as their next subject. Although their newest film Julia is probably their most conventional yet, it’s still a crowd-pleasing documentary that will win over the hearts of viewers.
The movie follows Julia Child as she revolutionized the way that Americans approached and understood food and cooking. There have been plenty of documentaries about celebrity chefs (just this year, Morgan Neville released the exceptional Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain), and Cohen and West’s film follows the recipe precisely.
One of the fundamental flaws of documentaries about celebrity chefs is that their stories are already so well-documented. Most people, or at least those who are likely to see this movie, will already be familiar with Child’s rise to success, as they will have witnessed it or at least watched or read some of her work.
The portions of the film which try to explore Child’s personal life are mostly shallow. A lot of the discussion of who Child was as a person is in relation to her personality, which is something that has already been well-documented. It lacks the feeling that the filmmakers are pulling back the curtain on their subject that is necessary when talking about such a well-known individual.
That said, the movie can only increase the amount of respect one has for Child. The work she did was really exceptional in more ways than one and influences us in ways we don’t even realize. It would have been nice to see more of a discussion on her role as a trailblazing woman in a male-dominated field, but the way in which that is touched upon is interesting nevertheless.
The film is mostly composed of modern interviews with Child’s peers and modern chefs who were influenced by her, in addition to a massive amount of archive materials. It’s the archive footage, drawn from Child’s on-air cooking demonstrations, that is most impressive, as her presence will captivate viewers.
Of course, no cooking documentary is complete without some absolutely scrumptious food shots, and this delivers in that regard. A good deal of the footage featuring Child cooking is in black-and-white, so that isn’t as appetizing, but there are plenty of recreations of her dishes shown, making this a movie best not to watch on an empty stomach.
Julia may not be groundbreaking as the person whose life story it is telling, but it’s a satisfying and entertaining documentary for what it is. Those looking for a casual nonfiction watch will definitely want to seek this one out.
Julia is screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9-18.
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