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Review: Ask Dr. Ruth

May 17, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

A registered sex therapist turned talk show host, first on the radio and then TV, Dr. Ruth Westheimer changed the way that sex was talked about in pop culture throughout the 1980s.

Already in her fifties when she gained notoriety, Dr. Ruth’s frank, no-nonsense way of speaking gave her the appearance of a stern but loving grandmother imparting wisdom with a good deal of humour mixed in. She remains just as unfiltered and inspiring at ninety years young, as we see in director Ryan White’s equally funny and moving documentary Ask Dr. Ruth.

Much of the film actually focuses on her heartbreaking early years as a Jewish child living in Germany when the Nazis came into power. She lost both her parents in the Holocaust and spent her formative years at an orphanage in Switzerland, where she was forced to live when her parents were taken to concentration camps. The film utilizes some nicely done animated sequences to show her experiences growing up, and it’s a cinematic choice that works really well, since no actual footage exists of her at the time.

White, who is openly gay, also uses his film to explore the great impact that Dr. Ruth’s work had on the public consciousness in terms of starting important conversations about sex and helping break down barriers. She made great strides to normalize homosexuality on air at the height of the AIDS crisis in a way that helped many gay people find acceptance, both within themselves and from others. This is a crowdpleasing portrait of Dr. Ruth that is both delightful and touching to watch, regardless of whether or not you are already familiar with her work.

Ask Dr. Ruth is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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