There’s something comforting about Alexander Liu’s funny, poignant and relatable documentary, A Sexplanation.
At its core, the documentary is a passion project for the writer, director and star. Liu is an out gay man living in San Francisco who immediately professes that despite having a supportive family (both Liu’s parents and his grandmother appear in the doc), as well as a great friend group, he has a lot of shame from childhood.
It’s a fascinating premise upon which to construct a documentary: Liu proposes to go on a North American tour to unpack the state of sex education and, more specifically, his own sexual baggage.
A Sexplanation is an inherently North American text in that it tacitly acknowledges how religion and politics have shaped a narrative that conflates a lack of sex education with the protection of children. Liu attempts to rectify this by seeking out a diverse range of interview subjects, ranging from sex therapists and counselors to researchers and childhood educators. He also aims to balance his subjects out by sitting down with a member of the Catholic Church, as well as Todd Weiler, the Governor of Utah who introduced a bill declaring pornography a public health crisis in 2016.
The wide range of talking head interviews helps to address some of Liu’s inherent bias, though the director pretty clearly wears his agenda on his sleeve. In particular, his interview with Weiler comes off more as a debate than a fact-finding mission, though it’s not as combative (and Weiler doesn’t come off as poorly) as audiences might initially expect given the distance between their individual perspectives.
There’s something incredibly admirable about Liu’s decision to put himself front and center as the focal point of his documentary. Not only does it provide A Sexplanation with a front-of-camera protagonist, Liu’s presence clearly acknowledges his own role and bias in shaping and constructing the narrative (something far too many documentaries tend to try and hide).
Liu’s search for answers provides the momentum and drive for the film. In so doing, he also personalizes A Sexplanation, without taking away from the value and importance of the information being imparted in the interviews.
It doesn’t hurt that the documentary is just plain fun and funny. The vast majority of Liu’s interviewees are charming, insightful, and incredibly well-equipped to discuss even the most uncomfortable of topics. And, to be clear, every topic is on the table, which provides plenty of comedy, but also ensures that A Sexplanation walks its own talk by destigmatizing frank and important conversations about sex and sexuality.
Add to this Liu’s use of props and animation, which serves to break up the talking head parade and injects a youthful vitality that will engage audiences of all ages.
The one challenging scene that will likely get the documentary struck down or dismissed by school boards (who should be the ones paying the most attention) is a slow-motion montage set at a nudist camp that includes full frontal nudity. It’s a pity because the obvious intent of this sequence is to realistically depict the human body, and yet the simple inclusion of human anatomy is apt to be a deal-breaker for plenty of conservative audiences.
The Bottom Line: A Sexplanation is a great primer on how to talk about sex, whether you’re an adult, teen or child. Thanks to its frank, accessible and amusing format, the doc could easily serve as a sex education resource for parents and teachers. 4.5/5
A Sexplanation played at Toronto’s Inside/Out festival.