“disFIGURED” bills itself as a film about “women and weight,” but this is no chick flick of women bemoaning the sad, fat state of their thighs. Two women with overlapping insecurities – one is struggling with anorexia, the other with emotional overeating and morbid obesity – embark on an unlikely friendship in Glenn Glers’ directorial debut. Shot on a barebones budget of little more than unknown talent and a director’s dream, “disFIGURED” is both absorbing and evocative, sentimental but not saccharine. This is a film that shows female body-image dysfunction comes in all shapes and sizes.
Lydia (Deidra Edwards) is a fat woman struggling with the Cartesian duality of wanting to accept herself as she is while still wrestling with how her life could be if only she were thin. She joins a fat acceptance support group dedicated to fighting the fat prejudices of a thin-obsessed culture, but it soon becomes clear that the negative voices Lydia hopes most to stifle are her own. Yet even amongst her fat peers, Lydia still doesn’t quite fit in. She proposes a fat walker’s group and is harshly scolded by the militant group who see any such move as simply code for dieting.
Strangely, the only person who supports Lydia is Darcy (Staci Lawrence), a shockingly thin newcomer who wanders in mid-meeting to the open-mouthed shock of the group. Darcy identifies herself as a recovering anorexic who hopes that joining the group will allow her to finally accept her “fat” – an image only visible to Darcy herself. For group members whose weights number in the hundreds of pounds, Darcy appears both mocking and cruelly satirical. She’s voted out of the group, despite Lydia’s protestations that no one should be excluded.
The two outcasts soon strike up an uneasy friendship and in Darcy, Lydia finds a perfect parallel: Darcy is sophisticated, willowy, elegant… and mentally ill. There isn’t an ounce of fat on her body, or in her acting: She has pared himself down so remarkably her skin barely covers her soul. Darcy receives accolades and praise from an adoring public; Lydia faces taunts and jeers from strangers on the street. Yet, it soon becomes apparent that happiness isn’t found in the junior’s department. Lydia’s story reveals itself in lush, saturated colors, while Darcy’s unfolds in cold austere tones and stark black and white imagery. There are no shades of grey in Darcy’s world, both literally and metonymically. It becomes obvious that Darcy still actively struggles with anorexia, but viewers get the sense that while she is starving physically, its human connection Darcy hungers for most.
Despite Darcy’s emotional constipation, she and Lydia strike up a curious friendship that pivots uneasily on the opposite ends of the weight spectrum occupied by the women. In each other, the two find solidarity, but it’s a friendship fraught with insecurity and marked by brutal honesty. When Lydia hesitantly asks Darcy what she thinks of Lydia’s body, Darcy doesn’t sugarcoat her words. “I think it’s disgusting,” she replies without apology. Later, Lydia invites Darcy over to her pad, where she makes a major faux pas in encouraging Darcy to join her on a wild food binge. For Darcy, the idea of submitting to her own flesh and desires is inconceivable and the proposal nearly marks the death knell of the fragile friendship.
With Darcy’s help, Lydia’s walker’s group idea meets with great success – in more ways than one. When burly Bob (Ryan C. Benson) joins the group, sparks fly between him and Lydia and the two soon embark on a non-committal sexual relationship. Genuinely fat people are rarely featured in films, much less are they made the subject of a non-satirical love interest. And sexual scenes involving one or more fat partners? Unheard of. But fat sex appears perfectly au natural in “disFIGURED” and Gers deserves kudos for the film’s beautifully-constructed and artfully-shot sole sex scene. The burgeoning relationship between Lydia and Bob brings an unforced intimacy to the film that is one of its strengths. To watch their characters interact is to eavesdrop on some of life’s smallest but most universal moments.
Armed with a new love interest and a fledgling friendship, Lydia’s life appears to be making an upswing. Then Bob mentions he’s getting gastric bypass surgery, shocking Lydia out of her calm complacency and back into her deepest insecurities. She asks Darcy to give her “anorexia lessons” to which the latter reluctantly obliges.
The bizarre concept might easily have easily turned into a how-to guide paraded across pro-ana boards and studiously studied by legions of aspiring anorexics. But in Gers’ capable hands, anorexia is seen not as a glamorous way to get thin quick, but as the emotionally-devastating and all-consuming mental illness it truly is. My only quibble with Gers here is that while he responsibly shows the mental toll of anorexia, Darcy appears almost too healthy in body.
On the flip side, Gers skillfully deals with the issue of Lydia’s emotional overeating while yet stopping short of falling into the stereotype of the fat person as uncontrollable glutton. Writing about issues of eating disorders and disordered eating amongst fat people is a difficult balance to strike. There’s the danger in the implicit assumption that all fat people must have problematic relationships with food – hence explaining their obesity. But it is also very difficult to be fat (or thin) in this current culture and not have fallen victim to social cues and conditioning that reaffirms and rewards weight-loss and thinness and denigrates and degrades fatness and fat people. To ignore this reality is self-delusion, at best, and “disFIGURED” does a beautiful job of portraying the struggles many people face in light of an increasingly disordered culture.
“disFIGURED” is a film of great risk-taking. People who believe in the absolute infallibility of the calories in/calories burned weight-loss equation will likely pass by this film altogether. But nor will hardcore fat acceptance activists see this as a valentine to fat people or to the movement. To their credit, most fat acceptance circles are more inclusive than the film’s group, and very few fat activists would reject even the most shockingly thin. Anti-thin sentiments do exist amongst those in the movement, but fortunately they are thin in the ranks. Fat people have a heavier load to bear than thin people, but most fat activists recognize that weight-based discrimination is a collective fight. Despite the unlikelihoods that drive the film, the filmmaker finds so many grace notes in the humanity of his characters that it ends up feeling fiercely and emotionally real.
The often ad-libbed discussions of this wounded group of mostly women sound off on experiences that won’t come as unfamiliar to fat viewers. Their search for empowerment and self-acceptance in a crazy-hostile world doesn’t stint on desperation and anxiety, but also refreshingly includes positive affirmations and personal validations. I wish there were more voluptuous actors like this, these men and women who look like someone you might sit next to on the bus, pass on the street or even see in the image reflected in the mirror. They hold the spotlight beautifully.
“disFIGURED” has the tact and sophistication not to tie things up too tidily for either Lydia or Darcy. The film ends on a vaguely optimistic note, but it remains uncertain if any of character’s personal catharses will pan out. In the end, these characters find that while the process of healing is a step forward each has to make for herself, it’s not a journey one has to make alone.
Ultimately “disFIGURED” is less about the ways in which we treat and are treated by others and more so about the lies we tell ourselves. This is a film that shows the power of words and of speaking honestly — both with others and with ourselves. Fortunately, “disFIGURED” helps us answer the difficult question of how to start that dialogue in our own lives.
Showing in Manhattan through July 24. Widely released through major retailers (Amazon, Netflix, Blockbuster, Best Buy) on July 29.
Written and directed by Glenn Gers; director of photography, Idit Dvir; edited by Mr. Gers and Gregory Plotkin; music by Kayla Schmah; production designer, Tabitha Johnson; produced by David W. Higgins; released by Cinema Libre Studio. Cast: Deidra Edwards (Lydia), Staci Lawrence (Darcy) and Ryan C. Benson (Bob).
Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes; this film is not rated.