By Jude Warne.
Jon Whelan acted solely as a concerned parent when he chose to investigate why his daughter’s new pajamas, which he himself had purchased for her from the Tween clothing brand Justice, were the source of an unsettlingly foul order. The path that this three-year-long investigation led him on serves as the crux of Whelan’s new documentary feature Stink! In it, we learn along with Whelan how a multitude of American manufacturers consistently include harmful and unnecessary chemicals in their products. More specifically, we learn how American perfume products incorporate unnatural ingredients, some of which are verified carcinogens, listed under the product ingredients as “Fragrance.” Any off-putting substance – such as horse urine – a substance we could never imagine putting into our bodies willingly, can be tinkered and tampered with until it is a beautifully smelling liquid, a marketable price-tagged perfume. We also learn over the course of the film, as Whelan digs deeper into the governmental legislative involvement in the use of these carcinogens (many countries outside of the US have outlawed their use), that as usual in corporation-land, the American people are less important than American money.
In addition to that of the concerned parent, Whelan also speaks from another point-of-view – that of a widower. He lost his young wife, the mother of the two lovely young daughters who we get to know over the course of the film, to breast cancer several years ago. Whelan recounts a story about his wife after she was diagnosed, when she went through the household products, beauty and otherwise, that she had been exposed to daily, trying to eliminate all potentially harmful chemical products from her life. Our daily exposure to synthetic products certainly has an impact on our health, and the human tendency to possess an out-of-focus-out-of-mind attitude toward potential hazards is perhaps not the best tendency. This tendency was eliminated for Whelan when his wife’s life was at stake and eventually lost.
Whelan intertwines his own personal story with that of the concerns of society at large to make a compelling and easily empathic argument. He could choose to hit us over the head with the tragedy that befell his family but does not; he allows the facts presented to stand for audience consideration. The balance of personal reflection on the past and genuine concern for the present effects on society is expertly measured out here. Considering the natural empathy that is most likely evoked in the audience when exposed to the tragedy that has touched Whelan’s life, it would not be surprising if he focused mainly on his own story. Whelan’s main goal in Stink! though is to work for the common good of all concerned, for the issues that touch all American lives.
A familiar the-American-people-are-being-lied-to! message, oh so common in gotcha documentaries, is colored with a bold authenticity here by Whelan’s personal tragedy and the respect that he treats it with. The assortment of talking heads that appear over the film’s course represent a cornucopia of qualified individuals that help to support Whelan’s arguments, and certain moments of Whelan’s fieldwork allow for ample drama (the best moment is when he interrogates the unguarded CEO of the Justice brand, the CEO who won’t clarify what his products’ ingredients are). Thus Whelan immediately has our attention and our empathy, an ideal slate onto which a compelling argument can be drawn. The film’s title, then, is perhaps its only con, as Stink! leads potential viewers to believe that the film’s ideas will be humorous and lighthearted in nature. There is occasional and tasteful humor here, but the issues presented are quite serious and worthy of weighty consideration by American viewers, whose daily lives are directly affected by them.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.