The Mask You Live In is about masculinity as a trap, making boys-to-men feel they must act aggressively and dominant, spurning any supposed weakness. It’s an important, worthy documentary—especially as a launch pad for discussion (the screening at Metro will be followed by a panel talk). But it overstates—and over-stats—its case, at times making that case as overly simplistic and over-determined as it argues American masculinity is.
Certain talking heads impress: ex-NFL-er Joe Ehrmann, faintly disgusted as he criticizes how athleticism has become so tied to male prowess or says, “‘Be a man’ … is one of the most destructive phrases in our culture,” teacher Ashanti Branch, leading male teens in an exercise where they first read the emotional fronts written on the face of a paper mask, and then the hidden truths on the back. One point startles—depression tends to be feminized, so boys’ acting out and increased aggression aren’t usually seen as signs of depression.
But, while criticizing binary, divisive notions of gender, The Mask You Live In can indulge in stark opposites itself. Its discussion of male sensitivity is mainly repression versus crying. Some film clips are offered out of context (The Wolf of Wall Street? actually a scathing take on venture-capitalist machismo); at least this year’s Best Picture at the Oscars, Moonlight, happens to offer a superb fiction-film counterpart to this documentary. An overload of statistics (none credited and nearly all referring to “boys”—American boys? What’s the age range? The sample size? Time period?) becomes numbing.
So do barrages of sensational news-items (bullying, initiations, shootings, rapes). Often ranging too widely, this documentary’s basically proclaiming a crisis in American masculinity (though it’s focused on California), and ends up more alarmist than analytical or thought-provoking.
The Mask You Live In does expose the problem of a monolithic masculinity so desperate to define itself, over and over, as anti-weak and non-female (or worse, non-weak and anti-female). By turning its spotlight into a heat-lamp, though, it overcooks its subject, burning it out well before 90 minutes are up.
The Mask You Live In
Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Sat., Apr. 1 (4 pm), Metro Cinema w/ panel discussion