REVIEW: Ask Dr. Ruth [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: May 3rd, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Magnolia Pictures / Hulu
    Director(s): Ryan White

“My parents actually gave me life twice”

A couple mentions of Dr. Ruth Westheimer as “Grandma Freud” are seen and heard throughout Ryan White‘s documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, but it isn’t until the conclusion that we discover the label is apt beyond its original intent. On the surface it’s hardly an original nickname considering she was over fifty when starting her radio show “Sexually Speaking” and thus an easy backhanded compliment to make. When the film turns to her ninetieth birthday party, however, her grandmotherly ways actually rise to the surface as she pretty much asks everyone she runs into whether or not they ate. Fast-forward to the end credits wherein she’s shoving food into White’s mouth while he stands behind the camera and it’s impossible to prevent her geniality from melting your heart.

The road there isn’t without turmoil and tragedy, though. I’ll estimate that only about twenty-five minutes of the film’s one hundred-minute runtime is devoted to her work as a sex therapist in the 1980s on both radio and TV. While that chapter in her life is what defines her for many outsiders, it’s merely the cherry on top for Ruth herself. This is a German-born woman who was sent to a Switzerland orphanage before World War II at ten, whose family was murdered during the Holocaust, and who trained as a sniper in the Israeli underground army. The drama, pain, and unshakeable memories of her youth ultimately defined her unyielding strength, confidence, and drive to live life to the fullest. Dr. Ruth never comes to fruition without it.

We must therefore experience her stories of hardship and perseverance. Some come from personal recollections and diary entries brought to life via voiceover and animation. Some arrive courtesy of her closest friends (Walter Nothmann, her first crush at that aforementioned orphanage, actually taught her at night what he learned during the day in high school) and more from the Holocaust Museum in Israel (Yad Vashem) where she lets White film her discovery of what actually happened to her parents so many decades ago. Ruth allows the documentary crew to follow her everywhere (except her bedroom) to get a first-hand look at the infectious personality that’s made her a legend and hero to thousands. And she keeps that smile on her face even when telling someone he/she is wrong.

It’s an all-encompassing journey through three marriages, two children, and four grandchildren that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon with books being published and appearances scheduled. Ruth isn’t one to quit because she knows that any amount of acclaim proves meaningless if you simply rest on your laurels and let the mission flitter away. So she remains vigilant. She continues to wield a response of “No comment” whenever a question of politics arises (so as not to alienate people in need of her help that might otherwise distrust her because of those ideals). And finally agrees to a label she hates (feminist) under the stipulation that “non-radical” is used as an adjective separating her core morality from the activism of generations far-removed from her own.

I can think of no better guide through Ruth’s life than herself, so it’s wonderful that White and company was able to get the ball rolling on this project while she’s still so actively involved with her mission of education. There are a few talking head moments, but most interviewees are actually on-screen with Ruth to transform their words into conversation rather than mere lecture. That’s not saying the content wouldn’t have worked the other way too, only that it’s nice to see how long-lasting her connections are to those she loves. With sojourns into the AIDS epidemic, abortion rights, and refugee crisis, we learn how expansive her passions are and how sex talk proved but a doorway towards topics near and dear to her heart.

So many young people probably don’t realize the impact she had on overturning America’s prudishness to allow the type of candor so prevalent through media today. Some of that influence is funny (celebrity doctors all go by their first names now) and some incontrovertible (the number of people who thank her for saving their lives). It’s no surprise then that her life has so much levity to go along with her many struggles nor that she would so champion the notion that “normal” doesn’t exist. By breaking down the barrier of sexual shaming, she helped empower communities nobody else was willing to support. For someone like me who really did know her as a comedic footnote in pop culture, Ask Dr. Ruth proves crucial to restoring her legacy.

[1] Dr. Ruth Westheimer in ASK DR. RUTH, a Hulu Originals film. Photo courtesy of Hulu Originals.
[2] Dr. Ruth Westheimer and director Ryan White in ASK DR. RUTH, a Hulu Originals film. Photo courtesy of Hulu Originals.
[3] Dr. Ruth Westheimer in ASK DR. RUTH, a Hulu Originals film. Photo courtesy of Hulu Originals.

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