Have you heard of Flynn McGarry? He’s the high-end teenage chef who was written up in The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section at 13 and on the cover of The New York Times Magazine two years later. Now, just before he turns 20 (Nov. 25), he gets his own documentary, “Chef Flynn.”
Except that it’s as much about his mother. Megan McGarry put her filmmaking career on hold when she had kids — Flynn has an older sister, Paris — or, not quite on hold. She shot so much home video, and it’s such a gold mine for the documentary’s director, Cameron Yates, that she gets a camerawork co-credit. The reduction the editor must have had to do makes any reductions Flynn makes look like fast food by comparison.
“I’m like a sort of player in this mad film about my strange son who figured out his life so early,” we hear her say. Is the son strange or is it the mother who clearly hasn’t figured out her life, late or early? Watching Megan watching Flynn being interviewed by Larry King is one of the more startling sights in a movie with many such.
For a while, it seems odd that we see so little of Paris or Will McGarry, the kids’ father and Megan’s husband (the couple break up during the course of the documentary). But a viewer comes to realize that this is a classic two-hander. The car may comfortably seat four, but the only ones who matter are the two sitting in front. The question becomes who’s the one behind the wheel and who’s riding shotgun. The answer isn’t necessarily straightforward.
At one point Megan says that she will never be on the cover of the Times Magazine. She says it matter of factly, which is presumably the only sane way to say such a thing — assuming there’s anything sane about having one’s 15-year-old show up there. Within that matter-of-factness, how much wonder does one detect? How much envy?
Questions like that are what’s best and most memorable about “Chef Flynn.” They’re also what’s creepiest. It’s commonly accepted that there’s such a thing as food porn. Devotees of same will find much to savor here. Maybe there should be another category, parental porn. Food porn is about “There but for the grace of God goes my waistline.” Parental porn is about “There but for the grace of God goes my copy of Doctor Spock.”
The McGarrys live in what looks to be an Arts and Crafts bungalow in Los Angeles. It’s even more attractive than the dishes Flynn prepares — at first by himself, then with the help of schoolmate assistants. The McGarrys’ boho-bourgeois lifestyle verges on self-parody. In fairness, maybe everyone’s lifestyle would verge on self-parody if viewed up close and far too personal — yours, mine, Mookie Betts’s (the bowling?) — but not everyone goes around constantly filming it. The question that keeps coming to mind is: Where does the money come from to pay for all this?
Flynn starts serving dinners in their home: first for friends, then for friends of friends, then for people who pay for the privilege. Many restaurants like to give the feeling and atmosphere of a home. This is a home that wants to be a restaurant. It even has a name, Eureka.
Soon enough, Flynn has gone to New York to work for a few weeks in the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park. That’s why The New Yorker writes him up. Later he’s doing pop-ups around Los Angeles with a $160 tasting menu. He goes back to Manhattan, to do another pop-up, this one of some duration. “Find out who’s not happy,” he says in the kitchen, “and get my mother out of the dining room.”
For much of its first half, “Chef Flynn” feels like an after-school special with a difference — a big, big difference. Granted, the prix-fixe menu is to die for. But that just makes the difference more confounding. Similar films could be made, have been made, about young dancers or gymnasts or musicians or figure skaters. But the environment they move in is, for better or worse, well populated by peers. Even when Flynn’s with classmates in the kitchen at home, he’s still effectively apart. And when he’s at Eleven Madison Park or in his own New York restaurant, surrounded by adults, he really is apart.
Flynn, who looks like a younger version of the young Christian Slater, is skinny, intense, a bit wary. If you’ve ever been the parent of a male adolescent — if you’ve ever been a male adolescent — you’ll recognize him. He’s also clearly thoughtful and well spoken. Asked how he feels about being referred to as a prodigy, Flynn says, “I just prefer that I’m a person, no matter what age, who’s cooking.” He tells another interviewer, “I had 10 years of childhood. I think that was enough.” The experience and opinion were his. The decision was his mother’s. Maybe “Chef Flynn II” will show if they were right.
Directed by Cameron Yates. At Kendall Square. 82 minutes. Unrated (several casual F-bombs get dropped — a few of them even bounce)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.