Chef Flynn may skimp on the details of its subject’s driving passion, but the film is more intriguing and more moving as it observes the next generation establishing its own identity.
“There are times with Flynn where I feel I’ve lost my identity of who I am.” This resentment is expressed by frustrated filmmaker Meg Daniels, whose son Flynn McGarry is the culinary child prodigy at the center of Chef Flynn. Such family dynamics makes director Cameron Yates’ film something of a failure as a conventional food documentary. But it’s that very tension that makes the material work as nonfiction drama.
The movie opens with footage of what seems like an ordinary teenager exploring the woods. But what’s he doing is foraging for natural edible ingredients. Back home, you get an even better sense of who Flynn is. He’s not transfixed by a video game or preparing for the big game; he asks mom where the rolling pin is.
This young chef, who was first written up by the New Yorker at the age of 13, learned what he wanted to do with his life years before his peers have even decided on their major in college. Daniels has long encouraged her precocious son’s interests; while many kids his age hide in their bedroom putting on an imaginary show, Flynn’s childhood bedroom is outfitted with kitchen equipment so he can work on his cuisine.
Was Flynn little more than a spoiled, privileged brat? Not as such; McGarry comes from creative parents; his mother made a number of independent films and his father is a professional photographer, so Flynn and his older sister have had their whole lives thoroughly documented on camera. Chef Flynn does feature some home movies of the children at play, but for the most part you see Flynn, as young as 10 years old, seeming in perfect command of his developing talents – but he pays the price with his lost childhood.
Chef Flynn will be frustrating to foodies who want to learn more about McGarry’s ideas in the kitchen. The film weaves back and forth in time from the in-home pop-up Eureka to footage of an even younger Flynn working on dishes for himself, and finally as the chef gets ready for his first New York restaurant. But the key scenes seem to be unrelated to food.
Several times, especially as he gets older, we see Flynn tell his mom to turn off the camera. These glimpses of Flynn’s growing need to be left alone is the real meat of the movie. By the final act, when Daniels is an empty nester living alone, it starts to become clear why her art didn’t take off. She’s too self-absorbed, turning inward when she doesn’t have her offspring to focus on. On the other hand, Flynn’s life, for all the pressures of the wunderkind, has been the opposite, so worried about what others are going to say about you – your mom, some stranger on social media – that he’s driven to an impossible perfection.
Director Cameron Yates previously made a feature documentary about a mother-daughter run brothel, which makes it obvious that Chef Flynn is less about the privileged creative class but about another unusual parent-child labor relationship. Chef Flynn may skimp on the details of its subject’s driving passion, but the film is more intriguing and more moving as it observes the next generation establishing its own identity.