Your Fat Friend, its other conversation, and the skill of a documentary

your fat friend
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A film about the difficult subject of weight, Your Fat Friend is also a documentary about something much broader and more powerful. Simon explains.

It’s often been said that the best documentaries can take a subject of which you know precious little, and it matters not a jot. That you become invested in something that you originally came to cold.

In the case of Jeanie Finlay’s new documentary film, Your Fat Friend, I’ve had the opposite way in. I think it’s an excellent feature but one I went into very much familiar with the subject.

I’m coming to the film the other side of the following scene-setting paragraph.

I’ve written a few times on this site about my constant battles with weight, that I’ve had under control I think for the last couple of years, yet at the cost of still weighing myself three times a day. That’s what happens when you’re relentlessly bullied as a child – and to a degree, an adult – over how you look and whether that fits society’s pre-ordained ideas of what you’re allowed to be and what you’re allowed to look like.

That completes the scene-setting paragraph.

Your Fat Friend follows Aubrey Gordon, a woman who opens the movie by declaring “just say fat”. We meet her at the start of her rise to prominence as she puts her words online, a journey that seems to consistently feature an online troll ready to rob her of any joy she gets from her successes.

The film is 96 minutes long, yet from reading about it, it spans six years. A complex six years, where Aubrey goes from writing those first pieces, to podcasting, to book writing, to dealing with horrific hate and bullying, to finding a path to being a happy adult.

Just that alone would have made quite the documentary.

As Maria explained better than I in her review on this site, “Your Fat Friend focuses tightly on Gordon’s experience as a fat woman, experiencing daily anti-fatness, which she calls ‘the water we swim in every day’. Her parents are also interviewed and there’s a refreshing honesty to Gordon talking to her mother about all the diets they embarked on together and how harmful they were in reality, for both women.”

I quote that review for three reasons.

Firstly, well, it saves me writing it. Secondly, it’s put better than I could say it. Thirdly, it touches on the part of the film that really got me, beyond what was I was anticipating.

You take in part what you bring to a movie, so this is inevitably quite a personal response from me. I’m a boring male responding to a film made by a woman about a woman, and as such, I want first to direct you to these responses from female writers:

A review on Letterboxd by Anna Mckenzie

A review on the Allliance of Women Film Journalists by Valerie Kalfrin

A feature on The Daily Beast by Allegra Frank

Feel free to add more in the comments, please.

I think, for me, the remarkable achievement of Jeanie Finlay’s film isn’t just that it has an open, candid conversation about weight, and about the way society approaches and judges people about their size. It’s what else it finds room for too.

Because I also think though there’s a really interesting conversation about parenthood in the midst of Your Fat Friend, in a film where I didn’t originally expect to find it.

I’ve read many responses to the film, but not many about that side of it. If it’s okay with you, I want to talk about that. I may be wrong, but to my eyes, Jeanie Finlay – whose voice we occasionally hear dropped into Your Fat Friend – seems to go out of her way to make sure that Aubrey’s parents are a part of the film.

Credit; Field Of Vision.

Personally, I am also someone who is flat-out paranoid about passing onto my children my own neuroses. I shut the door when I weigh myself, not just because of the obvious, but also I don’t want my children to see me weighing myself.

Whether I have my weight under control or not, I think we pass our issues on, and the thought of them watching me simply checking makes me feel quite sad. It terrifies me that I’d pass that on, in truth (easier to tell a website than a person, of course). As much as I believe in the first verse of the Philip Larkin poem This Be The Verse, it’s not for the want of trying otherwise.

Specific to Your Fat Friend, Aubrey’s parents are Rusty and Pam, who divorced when she was young. Aubrey was brought up by her mum, and only reconnected with her father a few years before filming began on the documentary. These are, as you’d expect, key relationships, and the imperfections of parenthood are given a welcome and non-judgemental airing in the quietly probing film that Finley delivers.

The movie shows us that as Aubrey’s success online grows, and as her words spread around the world, it’s hard for her dad in particular to find that tangible. That it’s all abstract, until the moment where he sits in a crowd of people and hears her talk.

It’s Aubrey’s platform when that day happens, and Jeanie Finley makes it clear she gets first priority at it. Not least airing her fear about telling people in advance where she’ll be, knowing there’s a slight chance that the internet haters might show up. We also see the joy she gets from realising – again tangibly – that she’s really not alone. Loved that.

Credit: Field Of Vision.

But also: watching Aubrey’s parents simply watching her is one of the most moving things I’ve seen on a screen in some time. The era when it was shot, they’re wearing protective face masks too, so I couldn’t help but watch how they were looking. I’m glad I did.

In her dad’s eyes, the moment where he grasps just how important his daughter is, not just to him, but to many people, is quite something. A beautiful moment, captured on film. This is where Finley doesn’t intervene at all: her camera simply watches. Sure, it’s edited, it’s graded, it’s presented in the form of a 96-minute documentary feature channelling six years. But that doesn’t make it any less human in this case, nor any less beautiful. My heart melted.  

I’d add too that it’s really quite haunting when Rusty talks about the work choices he made, and the impact on his family: in particular, his daughter. A woman he loves, but doesn’t seem to work out how to fully relate to. He throws her a birthday party in the film at one stage, and Finley asks him why. He sort of struggles for a reason, but that hit me too: his eyes tell you a lot more than his words.

Finlay digs further. She’s not content just to put a two-dimensional picture of a man with regret on screen. He’s not the main focus of the film, but – in an era where the subjects of documentaries are being revealed to have felt an aftermath from appearing on screen – it’s clearly important to offer an understanding of who he is too.

To bring things back to Aubrey: there’s a moment of candour from her near the end of the film – with her parents in the room – that seems easier to say to a big crowd, rather than a couple of people. The film has an undercurrent of conversations and communication, and working out how human beings try to find common ground.

I’m feeling quite seen by cinema at the moment. The Holdovers featured a middle-aged man with a wonky eye whose career was going south. Then along came Your Fat Friend, a frank, warm and human discussion about two things that take up a lot of my brain space.

If you can’t tell, I found Your Fat Friend a joyous, moving, sad and wonderful film.

“I think he understands how big the work is, and can be,” Aubrey says of her father towards the end of the movie.

Well, Your Fat Friend may not threaten to top the box office, but I hope Finley too is getting a sense of how big her work is here. She’s shaped a feature that’s awash with interesting conversations, and chats that we simply don’t have enough of.

Whether you can relate to those conversations on the surface or not, like all good documentaries, you’re likely to be thoroughly invested in them by the time the end credits roll – with an excellent vintage song playing over the top…

Your Fat Friend is out now in selected UK cinemas. For screening details in your area, take a look at the documentary’s website.

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