The scope of America the Beautiful's subject is astonishing: Director Darryl Roberts jabs at the evil influence of the beauty industry in America from nearly every conceivable angle. Plastic surgery, modeling, fashion magazines, PhotoShop, diet culture, and cosmetics companies all take a beating under the gaze of his camera. To throw a succinct noose around the heart of Roberts' unwieldy problem: Blame advertising.
That conclusion is laughably obvious, as are many of the Pollyanna revelations uncovered by the director. Filmed over the course of five years, the bulk of the subject matter in America the Beautiful is all too familiar to anyone cursorily familiar with the content of a typical fashion magazine. Articles on bulimia, plastic surgery health risks, and the sundry anxieties of youth and aging alike have run alongside editorial spreads of unattainable models in unattainably expensive clothing for eons. It's a formula perpetuated not only by the advertisers but readers, who ultimately dictate all the dollars—advert and editorial alike.
Like its subject matter, the film itself also feels dated in many ways. For instance, there's an alarmingly horrific section on botched, barbaric plastic surgery that is suspiciously un-savvy of the shifting approach within this rapidly evolving industry, which increasingly emphasizes more frequent, minor procedures over drastic and invasive measures—an evolution that has been meticulously tracked by the same mainstream magazines that shoulder much of the film's blame.
Roberts' ambitious reach is somewhat grounded by the continuous thread following Gerren Taylor's modeling career from age 12-15 (which might have made a more focused and nuanced documentary on its own), but the film's strength lies in the sheer number of doors it teases open for deeper conversations. As such, it's a great 101 for a new transplant to the western world, and some small tonic to those coming of age within it. And despite its clunky naïveté, the film as a whole still has plenty to keep it interesting—there's dizzying, often riveting stuff in here, even if the whole is, rather fittingly, imperfect.