Fat is a Humanist Issue: a Review of Fat Girls by Catherine Schuller

I received an invite from Deb Malkin of Alight.comfor a private screening of a new independent film called “FAT GIRLS.”

I think when I saw the title I subliminally groaned to myself and thought, “I’m getting jaded… not yet another take on the decades long subject of the angst ridden, poor me, lonely-hearts-club-if-only-I-could-make- them-like-me recycled, rehashed society-as-villain theme of the rotund reject.  I told you I was jaded. Even with my “double dare ya” approach, I still WANTED to like anything dealing with this concept, so I wound up going because I feel I owe it to myself to suspend my weariness and see if I might just be pleasantly surprised.  I tried to keep my preconceived notions and conjured-up visions of what FAT GIRLS would be as a movie theme at bay.  But, somewhere visions of “Mean Girls” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” kept coming to mind – with a dose of Shallow Hal’s Hollywood pablum thrown in for good measure – UGH!  However, as I studied the promo blurb, I softened my opinion when I read the all-important tagline – “AREN’T WE ALL?”  Three concise words, major impact… Brilliant!  That was the clincher.

For all of you who may know me personally or thru hearsay, my personal journey for the past few years has not been one of full figured segregation anymore.  Gone are the days of looking for ways to isolate and elevate us as a demographic statistic.  Rather, I have been moving into a more integrated, all-encompassing approach that seeks to include, not exclude, us from the mainstream of fashion and lifestyle.  I’m tired of diversity eventually fostering separateness.  I have never felt alone in this market, nor in the world for that matter.  It helps that I was raised in the generation that thought “freak” was a good thing.  I never felt like a second class citizen nor less than perfect (even when I was the only plus size lingerie model during a video shoot during the 80s) and could never get the apparel world’s economics of not providing product for 63 million women, a substantial segment of the population… at large, literally.   And I definitely have grown into a deep-seated resentment of primarily being defined by my size.  Some of my past inspirations have included the book by Wendy Shanker “The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life”, the awesome stage play “Fat Pig” written by Neil LaBute and an old school favorite “Fat is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach.  What do these works all have in common?  They use the word FAT and it flies in the face of decorum and convention.  I see that for its obvious shock value, but also bomb-diffusing quality!

So, I was warming up to this FAT GIRLS movie and actually anxious to see it.  I had attended the Globesity Festival at Theatre for New City the weekend before and was blown away by the artists involved and their interpretations of over- consumption and rampant consumerism in the world today.  I was set to be moved again.

I showed up to the Cantor Film Center at NYU on 8th Street in New York’s East Village on Tuesday night.  I locked up my bike (Don’t Ask, I’m Saving GAS!) on a nearby pole and saw a line halfway down the block in front of the entrance.  I said to myself, “Dare I think it – perhaps the title was actually a draw!”  I entered the theatre; it used to be an old arthouse in the 70s before NYU bought it for their film school.  I was escorted to the reserved seat section where they put me “down in front” – no escaping now.  I was committed to my front row critic position.  I took out my pen and paper in my best John Simon note-taking behavior, and prepared to treat this screening as a time for professional review.  Hence the article you are reading now.

The host of the event grabbed the mike at 7 pm sharp and welcomed everyone and briefly introduced the film and some of its recent awards and invited the writer, star and director, Ash Christian (mentioning that he was on Ugly Betty with a recurring role) to take the stage.  Ash got up and spoke for a minute…a sweet faced, soft spoken lad who thanked everyone for coming and encouraged everyone to please tell their friends because the opening date figures are crucial for a film’s continued run.  “Even if you don’t want to see it again, please just buy a ticket.”  I liked his bargaining and pleading tact and forthright logic.   Besides that, his excitement at standing on the stage and addressing us – finally after two years in the making – was palpable.  He ended with another plea; he wanted us to all stay afterward for the Q&A session with him and some of the actors.  No sneaking out at this point.  I was fully locked and loaded.  Plus, he saw me laugh and knew I was “in his corner.”

The lights dimmed and the movie began.  The opening scene nailed it.  Ash Christian plays the lead character, Rodney, a gay boy from a small town in Texas, and we hear his inner thoughts as he ponders the meaning of life and gets to the point of the movie.  His journey has been a quest, summed up succinctly in his desire to find his “inner FAT GIRL!”  And it keeps going from there.  The next few moments I was reeled in further as Ash Christian used one of my favorite devices (from Parker Lewis and Dream On). …freeze frame and having the character commenting on the moment in inner thought narration.  I love that film device, even more than a flashback!  And I LOVE flashbacks!

The film is a direct, honest and immensely laugh out loud look at what it means to be a fat girl, synonymous with Rodney’s gay teen, in this seething cauldron of a Southern, home town, high school backdrop.  The fat girl is truly fat.  Someone we have all seen and stared at down at the mall.  Sabrina (the natural blonde turned black as pitch thanks to L’Oreal) is a true 300+ lb. teen with those harsh, pudgy, Goth looks – replete with black overdone makeup, chipped burgundy nail polish, a camouflage print T-shirt that says” Ha, Now You Can’t See Me” and elastic waistband, pull-on Torrid skirt.   Sabrina is Rodney’s BFF, fag hag, personal confidante and soul advisor.  Together they play off of various and sundry characters who range from Rodney’s bible-thumping mother, a philandering father (he has a much-deserved heart attack while having sex with a S&M midget), a closet female impersonator inspirational teacher, the edgy hot gay guy, the misfit transfer student from Cuba, the ineffectual stud who happens to be Rodney’s loyal cousin, the oversexed blonde bimbo, and various other roles which are at once formulaic, but necessarily realistic and jaw-droppingly hysterical in their places within the story line.

The cast is a wonderful ensemble that work effortlessly together and weave their magic in awkward and heartfelt scenes.  The film is fraught with ironies, idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies (hey, it’s TEXAS!), teen malaise, pimply and painful moments that are smack-dab, dead on.  You care about these people and are rooting for all the right characters, for all the right reasons.  To Ash’s credit – because after all this is his story in real life — he keeps it real… very, very real.  And what emerges is a poignant look at what finding your “inner Fat Girl” means to us all.

As best I can report, Sabrina’s portrayal is equal parts self-acceptance, unwitting empowerment, and grab-the-brass-ring gusto.  She is irked by the skinny bitches rejection but nowhere does it serve as a despondent barrier to her having a rockin’ good time.  Sabrina’s standards may be relative to her size, but she gets the job done and we are happy for her – just as she is.  In the end, at the climactic school dance (with all that signifies in terms of hope and fulfillment), she’s the one with true friends, she’s the one getting laid – okay he’s an adopted Cuban refugee transfer student, but he’s packing the goods – and she’s the one dancing her ass off on the dance floor (in the cutest, polka dot dress, shrug and converse sneaker ensemble).  By contrast, the prettiest, slutty girl, the school bully, the handsome stud are all left to wallow in their own pretenses, deluded by their own images, stopped in their tracks by their own biases, hatreds, prejudices and resentments.  The Fat Girl is triumphant, riddled with her own demons of angst and dissolution, but coping and moving forward.  She’s not carefree by any means, but she is weirdly and personally victorious; setting the example for all of us to get on with it and persevere to find your own individual bliss.

As I sat with the actors at the Q&A and then later at the after party, (I told you I was hooked), I had a chance to speak with the entire cast.  It’s always an interesting phenomenon to see someone on the screen and then meet them and see how closely – or not – they related to the characters they played in the film.  Ashley Fink’s Sabrina is exactly who she is, warts and all.  She is a modern day protagonist and with her edgy, bubbly, delightful (she smiles more than Sabrina) and awestruck passion and determination in check, she’s my new fave, double-digit diva heroine of the week.

Go see this film — and soon!  It’s an important theme for all of us to examine individually, especially in this time in America when our divisiveness seems to be further separating us from each other.   Instead of looking for similarities and commonalities in our shared human existence we seem to seek ways to point fingers, accuse and hold deep-seated grudges.  Are we so insecure that we need to feel superior to somehow who is different than we are?  Or could we benefit from delving into those differences and embracing them to find a reflection of ourselves in everything we encounter.  The Fat Girl as the new icon for overcoming oppression in the world?  Now that’s a truly, weighty role with an enduring message we can all leave the theatre and ponder.

Congratulations Ash Christian on your valiant first effort… long may your freak flag fly!