Having sex, or at least talking about it, promotes longevity and vitality.
So it would seem from the case of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, subject of Ryan White’s peripatetic and ultimately poignant documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth.” It opens May 3 at the Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. The 4-foot, 7-inch, 90-year-old dynamo, famed for her frank and consoling advice on intimate sexual matters, adheres to a schedule that exhausts her younger, harried assistant. He wishes she would retire — so he could, too.
Meanwhile, she whisks herself off to an appearance on “Good Morning America” and back to her apartment. It’s in the Washington Heights building, in upper Manhattan, where she has lived for 56 years. She says she feels comfortable in a neighborhood of immigrants.
As seen in a flurry of montages, it all started with her 1980 radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” which became a surprise hit and made her a celebrity. Since then there have been several television series, numerous appearances on talk shows, a role on an episode of “Quantum Leap,” commercials for cars and shampoo, and around 40 books. She was a queen at a medieval fest, and there is also an unexplained picture of her posing next to Wally, at Fenway Park.
Some have criticized as reckless her quick assessments of complicated cases. A segment from “Good Morning America” in which she holds up cards saying “nix” or “fix” in response to the relationship problems of audience members does seem a bit perfunctory. On the other hand, her decades-long, unwavering advocacy on reproductive rights, LGBT issues, and AIDS research have contributed significantly to the advancement of those causes.
Why not feminism? In one scene her granddaughter presses her on this, pointing out all the feminist causes and beliefs she supports. But she can’t get her to accept the label. “I’m not for burning bras,” Dr. Ruth explains.
There are other matters she resists acknowledging, like trauma from her past. In somewhat clunky animated sequences, she is shown being sent from her home in Germany by her Jewish parents to Switzerland to escape the Nazis. There she stayed in an orphanage where she eagerly read the letters from her parents, who had remained behind. Then the letters stopped coming. In her diary she records the days, months, and years since the last letter, still hoping that she may hear from them again. She never does.
From Switzerland she emigrates to a kibbutz in Israel. Serving as a sniper fighting for the Israeli army during the War of Independence in 1948, her feet are severely wounded in an explosion. It seemed likely they would be amputated, but with the attentive care of a handsome male nurse she recovered.
Despite the injury, she says, she was still able to dance all night long. But the psychological injuries have not healed. Her daughter points out that her mother sustains her jovial and optimistic attitude because she has “blocked her feelings out. That is how she survived.”
But over 75 years after her parents disappeared, Dr. Ruth decides to learn the truth about what happened. She visits Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem, where there are records of those who perished during the Holocaust, where and, when. Her parents are among those listed. After counseling thousands, Dr. Ruth faces her own pain, which defies healing.
ASK DR. RUTH
Directed by Ryan White. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 100 minutes. Not rated (some frank and salty talk about sexual matters).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org