A documentary crew follows Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the weeks before her 90th birthday. She reflects on her upbringing as a Jewish child fleeing the Nazis, her life in Israel, Europe and America and her career as America’s most prominent sex therapist.
First and foremost the film is a heartfelt love letter to Dr. Ruth. There’s a huge appreciation not just for what she does but for who she is. Her presence in the film is delightful. She is disarmingly forthright and considerate and effortlessly charming. The film does a wonderful job of demonstrating why she was important. She broke taboos and advocated for important causes throughout her career. She sought an open dialogue about sex and sexual health that is still provocative today.
There is a concessionary inclusion of some criticism of Ruth and her approach to sex counselling, namely that the format in which she worked didn’t afford much insight into the individual cases, resulting in advice that’s ‘reckless’. This is an interesting aspect of her work, the conflict between good medicine and entertainment. She is undoubtedly a showman, which may well be a weakness as well as a strength. I’d have enjoyed hearing her response to this criticism.
Interestingly for someone who is pro-choice, supports gay marriage and broke taboos around AIDS and female sexual pleasure, Dr. Ruth is portrayed as being very reluctant to identify as political or endorse any particular candidate or party. She says that this is because she doesn’t want people to be put off using her services as a result of her affiliation. She is not, however, free from controversy and there are some very interesting moments in which the film explores the reactions of more prudish listeners and watchers.
The film contains animated sequences illustrating Ruth’s past in Nazi Germany, an orphanage in Switzerland and a camp in Israel. The style of these sequences feel a little incongruous. They are very rosy and saccharine which doesn’t quite match the very natural feel of the rest of the film.
Ask Dr Ruth is a wonderful documentary that is funny and heartfelt. It’s a celebration of her work and her legacy.