(USA, 83 min.)
Dir. Cameron Yates
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
If tennis was the competitive pop-up theme for TIFF17, chefs are it for Hot Docs 2018. Eight women chefs put on The Heat for the festival’s opening night film by Toronto director Maya Gallus. Another “hot doc” in the burgeoning fine dining kitchen genre is Chef Flynn, a profile of 19-year-old cooking superstar Flynn McGarry.
On the screen, 10-year-old “Chef Flynn” transforms his family’s California living room into supper club “Eureka” (note the early chutzpah) using his classmates as line cooks. With sudden fame, Flynn outgrows his bedroom kitchen and sets out to challenge the hierarchy of the culinary world, but not without pushback. American filmmaker Cameron Yates, last at Hot Docs 2010 with Canal St. Madam, followed him over several years, supplementing the film with extrovert L.A. filmmaker Meg McGarry’s early and ongoing footage of her introvert son’s exploits.
Herein lies the crux of the film: It’s worthwhile as a film about parenting as much as it is a portrait doc about a prodigy. But Yates touches on underlying psychological and relationship issues between Meg and Flynn while not quite exploring them in enough of a critical or multifaceted way, ultimately letting his personal admiration and friendship win over artistic distance (a criticism one can also level at The Heat). But that shouldn’t detract too much from the enjoyment of a film that is smartly told and full of unparalleled observations given the “full coverage” of Flynn’s young life. Many scenes are warm and humorous: a 12-year-old hacking away with a cleaver while talking lamb reductions and granitas, a mother reverting back to egg-in-a-hole dinners without her chef-son around.
Admittedly, Yates knows about his inherent authorship and ownership problem, co-shooting with an unreliable narrator. He addresses the problem, quoting Meg as saying “I am a player in my strange son’s world, who figured out his life so early,” and defending her incessant (dashboard!) camera placement in his life with a bittersweet mother’s lament: “It gave me a way to be allowed in.” Meg is a player with a strong agenda and her own creative demons, eagerly story-boarding in her filmmaker-head as she goes. She tries to prompt on-screen quotes from the prematurely wise, sweet and embarrassedly eye-rolling boy: “How many followers do you have on Instagram, Flynn?” Her reaction to Flynn’s NYT Magazine cover —“I will never be on the cover”— gives you an idea of her own struggles. If you listen and watch closely and catch the contradictions and the conscious and subconscious mythologizing, you can paint your own picture (and opinion) of this taxing mother-child relationship.
At the same time Meg intuitively recognizes her son’s undeniable and unavoidable uber-talent and is supportive of his every move and wish to an admirable and unusual extent (Did she sell her fairy-tale California farmhouse to have him rent a one-bedroom in Manhattan?). Is this unconditional love giving Flynn room for total self-realization or just lack of structure? Or is the New York move an attempted success-by-proxy by a parent who never made it to the very top? Behind the desktop where she reluctantly and haphazardly tries to keep on top of the home restaurant’s books, we see a pinned photo of Meg in the 80s (pre-children, which she nostalgically references) against a graffiti that reads “Do you matter?” It could serve as the documentary’s subtitle. It feels like the entire family, including Flynn’s alcoholic artist-dad, are desperately looking for an answer to the question “what do you have to show for yourself?”
The end of the film—spoiler alert—then holds some key revelations and harks back to the pondering of roles and responsibilities at the beginning. Meg muses, whether proudly or rattled is hard to say, that “It seems that I wrote this story,” while Yates inserts footage that he says Flynn’s slightly older sister recently rediscovered. It has you wanting to call Children’s Aid. The young family of four is on the floor playing. We see one-year-old Flynn, pre-verbal, just walking. Meg is filming, photographer-dad (later divorced and absent) is taking photos. There’s a dry erase board that reads “Chef Flynn” and cajoling parents, completely focused on their baby boy. The father admonishes the young daughter to get out of the way because she is blocking the view of “Chef Flynn.”
Yates naturally ends the film where mother and son separate for the first time. A professional career is on the horizon for Flynn, after a first brief experience of failure and the resulting growing up overnight (literally).
This reviewer wanted to see more of the creative process, what drives and inspires Flynn, and to know more about and hear more from the young man himself. And perhaps that is a challenge we will encounter more in portrait documentaries of the next generation, where more time is spent silently checking social media on your phone than engaging with a director. Flynn is the most mature and together of all the characters in this morality play, but also the most enigmatic and reclusive and potentially vulnerable. Glimpses of dark moments (online hate, self-induced stress, exhaustion) tease more depths to plumb. This is a kid in a pressure cooker, one he is destined or doomed to stew in.
When I asked my 10-year-old daughter what she thought about Flynn’s answer to Larry King’s question whether he was missing out: “I had 10 years of childhood, I think that’s enough,” she said “I felt sad for him.” On the other hand, Chef Flynn couldn’t attend his Canadian premiere at Hot Docs because he just fulfilled his biggest dream: opening his first own restaurant in New York, Gem (his mother’s name spelled backwards), after moving there on his own.
Chef Flynn is a film about extreme talent and the price you pay, a perhaps cursed gift or gifted curse. And a film about how to try to be a parent without losing sight of yourself and those around you. After the Hot Docs premiere, Yates said he thought about the film as the “origin story” and a “first chapter” and announced plans to follow up with Flynn next year in a radio work. Until then, catch “Chef Flynn” at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at the end of the year, where it will likely have a popular run.
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.