Personal stories can be the most challenging stories to tell. Talking about yourself is easy, but refining a personal story in order to share it with others takes skill and humility. For an unskilled writer or filmmaker, the result is often something like a melodramatic diary entry, but for filmmakers like Justinsuperstar (Justin Johnson), the result is something truly special. His delightful documentary, Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory, is anything but a melodramatic diary entry. It’s a warm, welcoming, and engaging story that makes the personal feel universal. If the provocative title is what pulls you in, it’s Johnson’s honesty and gift for storytelling that will make you stay. Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory isn’t just a documentary about a small business. It’s also a heartfelt, hopeful, and realistic portrait of a beautiful family.
Johnson uses home videos, family photos, animations, and interviews to tell the story of Naturally Impressive, a prosthetic nipple company founded by his parents. After undergoing a mastectomy and other treatments for breast cancer, Johnson’s mother, Randi, didn’t feel quite like herself anyone. Even after breast reconstruction surgery, Randi still felt incomplete and struggled with self-confidence. Her husband, Brian, put his invention and design skills to work to help Randi get the one thing that the medical community couldn’t give her: a realistic prosthetic nipple. Over time, Brian’s simple invention for his wife turned into a business that would help women all over the country gain confidence and feel complete again.
Randi and Brian’s story, however, began long before Randi received her life-altering diagnosis. In order to do this story justice, Johnson starts the documentary with his family history. He brings this history to life with grainy family photographs, fuzzy home videos, old-timey music, and nods to cultural and technological innovations of the past. Johnson welcomes us into his family story with open arms, creating a warm and nostalgic experience that’s similar to listening to grandparents tell stories. As the family scrapbook comes to life, Johnson brings his four siblings together to share memories of Christmases, birthdays, and ordinary weeknights spent in front of the TV. He also brings in members of the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, community, creating an undeniable small-town feel that shapes his family’s story. With expert storytelling skills, Johnson develops a dynamic and detailed portrait of his parents as a humble and unlikely couple who have loved each other through anything and everything. It’s this portrait that sets the tone for the rest of the documentary, making the audience fall in love with Randi and Brian Johnson all the more.
Johnson was lucky to have so many home photos and videos at his disposal, and he took advantage of those memories by carefully editing them into an engaging story. Rather than recycling the same few clips over and over again to get as much meaning out of them as possible (as some documentary editors do), Johnson uses a whole library of media and sources, letting each video and photograph speak for itself. When he doesn’t have exactly what he needs, he uses stylized animations to fill in the gaps. With expert editing skills, Johnson gets the timing and tone of the documentary just right.
Toward the middle and end of the documentary, Johnson also explores how the moral code of the Christian community made it challenging for his parents to make and sell such an intimate product. If there’s one thing that Johnson could have added to his documentary, it’s more information about the nuances of evangelicalism and purity culture. For viewers who aren’t familiar with American Christian culture, some parts of the documentary will feel cringy and odd. Conversations about breasts and nipples will always make people feel a bit awkward, but there’s a certain level of awkwardness and anxiety that’s specific to the evangelical community. Unless you grew up around people who avoided words like “sex” and said things like “one flesh” instead, you may not understand why the family dentist gets so awkward when talking about nipples. If you aren’t a survivor of the “True Love Waits” era, you may not get why Johnson’s brother, who’s not married, feels like he can’t talk or think about his parents’ business for very long without having “impure” thoughts. A bit more context about how the evangelical community deals with sexual topics might make these awkward reactions more understandable.
In the end, however, the awkwardness and religious anxiety is overshadowed by a hopeful portrait of a strong and loving family. As he closes out the film, Johnson shows that despite the differences between his parents and the world outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, this extraordinary couple was still able to change dozens of lives for the better.
To learn more about Naturally Impressive, check out their website.
You can check out more of Justinsuperstar’s work on his YouTube channel.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.