Acclaimed New Film About Jewish Sex Therapist Dr. Ruth Could Be This Year’s ‘RBG’

Documentary ‘Ask Dr. Ruth,’ which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is lauded by critics for its touching depiction of the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor’s amazing life story

From the documentary "Ask Dr. Ruth," about legendary sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Hulu/Magnolia Pictures

The Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG” proved the surprise box office hit of 2018 in the United States, and a new film about another iconic Jewish woman looks set to follow suit.

“Ask Dr. Ruth” received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah last Friday, with the 90-year-old sex therapist Ruth Westheimer (aka the “Goddess of Good Sex”) in attendance and telling every reporter she met how she hopes to receive an Academy Award nomination for her efforts.

Early reviews of director Ryan White’s documentary – which will receive a theatrical release before airing on Hulu later this year – suggest this could even be a possibility.

Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg notes that the film “ably and reasonably positions Dr. Ruth Westheimer to be something like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of sex.”

He writes that the doc is at its best “as it introduces young Karola Ruth Siegel, born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928 and delivered to an orphanage in Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport at the age of 10.”

Fienberg adds that White “has latched onto one photograph of a spectacularly sad-eyed Young Dr. Ruth and used it as the basis for compelling animated sequences that fill in the gaps in her childhood along with excerpts from Dr. Ruth's diaries. Through those youthful German musings, we experience Ruth's growing realization that she may never hear from her parents again, a formative tragedy the documentary links to her adult desire for love and for physical contact.”

Out Magazine is equally enamored, reviewer Tre’vell Anderson calling the film “a stirring good time, a deeply informative revelation, and an all-encompassing reflection of a woman who succeeded, and thrives, in spite of her past.”

The review continues, “The mark of a great documentary lies mostly in its subject. They need be intriguing to mass audiences with a high level of relatability and endearing sensibilities. This is exactly what White has on his hands with Dr. Ruth: A compact, Holocaust-surviving grandmother with a thick German accent who’s unabashed about sex and sexuality.”

Writing in Vulture, Rachel Handler says the film successfully balances moments of sweetness with shocks of pain. “In one scene, Westheimer visits Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem] and learns exactly where and when her parents perished in the Holocaust,” she writes. “What emerges is the portrait of an incredible, brave woman with a gigantic heart, a singular intellect, and the unlikely energy of 120 horses. As she herself puts it in the film, ‘I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.’”

Slug Magazine critic Ali Shimkus also sings the praises of both Dr. Ruth and the documentary. The film balances “the lighthearted, charming, humorous side of Dr. Ruth with some of the darker elements of her past in a way that is captivating and entertaining,” Shimkus writes. “Through learning about Dr. Ruth, there was a lot that involved learning also about the history of the Holocaust, feminism, and how American culture ultimately embraced sexuality as put forth by Dr. Ruth.”

Director White told The Hollywood Reporter that Westheimer’s life “is like a Forrest Gump-style story. She’s intersected with so many important parts of world history that I don’t know if there’s a living person that has such a remarkable story.”

Early reviews have also been complimentary about the decision to literally illustrate Westheimer’s childhood via animated sequences. White explained to the Hollywood Reporter that he always wanted Dr. Ruth’s “childhood to be a big part of the film, but I didn’t want to use B-roll of train stations and footage from the Holocaust to tell these harrowing tales. I was obsessed with [her] eyes, and making sure the animated version of [her] eyes looked just like the real ones, since I wanted all the animation to be seen through [them].”

And Dr. Ruth herself told Vanity Fair why, after so many years of turning down requests to be the subject of a documentary, she finally relented. “There is an obligation by me to stand up and be counted for some of the things that are happening today,” she told the magazine. “Even though I don’t do politics, I’m very upset about what’s happening with children being separated from their parents, because that’s my story. But I also said yes because I need to combat the people that are deniers of the Holocaust, and who have fatigue [from hearing about the] Holocaust, to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

She also revealed to Deadline Studio how a 2012 Holocaust docudrama called “No Place on Earth” played a part in finally getting her to say yes to a documentary, even though she feels she has already been “enough on television, enough in the media.”

Finally, Out Magazine speculates that, just as RBG recently received the Hollywood treatment – Felicity Jones starring as a dramatized version of the young struggling attorney in “On the Basis of Sex” – Dr. Ruth merits her own big screen movie as well.

“What we’re ultimately left to grapple with is the story of a woman who isn’t supposed to be here, a woman who beat the odds with an unspeakable charisma,” writes Tre’vell Anderson. “Dr. Ruth’s life story is remarkable and worthy of Oscar-bait dramatization. Until then, the worthy gift that ‘Ask Dr. Ruth’ is will do. It proves she’s worthy of a place in the history books, if not for overcoming her past, for helping generations to come get comfortable talking sex and sexuality.”