The moment anyone begins to educate about the mechanics of sex in a thick German accent, there’s only one person they could be imitating: Dr. Ruth Westheimer; few voices are more iconic. Director Ryan White (Serena, Good Ol’ Freda) is given unprecedented access into the personal life of the legendary sex therapist, artfully blending the biography of her astounding private and professional life.
Though she’s one of the most famous therapists in the world, few know her life story. Born in 1928 in Germany, as the only child of an Orthodox Jewish family, she spent the majority of her childhood in an orphanage in Switzerland — a choice that would make her the only surviving member of her family from the Holocaust. Lyrical, sweet animations illustrate this past, and I was struck by what a great idea that was; telling the story of a person whose love for sexuality started in childhood isn’t an easy task. It does great justice to Dr. Ruth’s impassioned, lifelong message that human sexuality is natural, innate, and wholesome. Her life is actually even more provocative than the boldness of her teaching style. She was a sniper, almost lost both her feet from a bombing, and learned English from reading romance novels. Her journey to becoming famous for talking about sex is genuinely extraordinary, and at ninety years old, she’s still busier than most people.
She is also fully aware that her adorable, grandmotherly appearance gives her the power to say things most people wouldn’t, and she has used that power to revolutionize how sexuality gets talked about. The film gives obligatory nods to Dr. Ruth’s critics, but thankfully chooses to focus primarily on the woman herself, as well as the positive impact she’s made on the lives of millions. In her revolutionary approach to view political issues from a doctor’s clinical perspective, she naturally became a seminal figure in women’s reproductive rights, AIDS education, and LGBTQ rights. Sexually Speaking, the radio show that changed everything and the immediate fame that followed, reminds us that there was a time when no one talked about what went on in the bedroom in an educational way. And there’s still no one like Dr. Ruth. With the dizzying abundance of sex tips available now, she’s still the grandmother no one knew they needed.
This is a delightful, feel-good (I couldn’t resist) movie. With more historical women getting their due with quality documentaries, thank goodness this one happened while Dr. Ruth is still alive (my favorite scenes are the outtakes during the credits where she’s constantly trying to feed White while he’s filming). To watch her ferociously generous, joyous spirit is an uplifting good time at the movies.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24 to May 5. Visit the official website for more details.