‘Britney Vs Spears’ film review: A toxic and troubling take on a controversial conservatorship

Reductive in its narrative, it is surprising that Erin Lee Carr’s attempt at a sobering documentary about Britney Spears and the conservatorship was given a green light at all

I woke up this morning to the fist-pumping news that Britney Spears’ father Jamie has been suspended as conservator. This was a couple of days after I had powered through the unwatchable Britney Vs Spears on Netflix – an experience that made my skin crawl.

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I went into Britney Vs Spears with high hopes for a couple of reasons; the first being that Netflix does its fair share of good documentaries, and the second being the Britney Spears conservatorship deserves all the progressive press it has received. But I missed the major red flag before its release; the fact that Netflix debuted the trailer just a few days before its launch. I have seen a pattern – and feel free to disagree – of Netflix shunting last-minute trailers for projects the platform is not exactly proud to call its own.

While The New York Times Presents documentary Framing Britney Spears by Samantha Stark employed a feminist lens to examine the conservatorship, Vice contributor Carr takes a somewhat more salacious turn with Britney Vs Spears. The former was not received well by Spears who said she cried for two weeks after watching it. She also called the BBC’s documentary The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship hypocritical.

Read More | ‘Framing Britney Spears’ review: We know why the caged pop star sings

These unauthorised documentaries are understandably ill-received… but for Britney Vs Spears, the musician came forward and said it left her scratching her head and she shamed the unclassy dialogue. So, we are off to a great start.

In the film, as attorney Tony Chicotel so bluntly puts it, a conservatorship is “a civil death”, the last resort that is implemented only when the circumstances are beyond anyone’s control. For 13 years, Spears was subjected to not just monitoring her finances but also having her reproductive rights taken away from her and her private home bugged in bedrooms and bathrooms. Her mental health struggles were made into punny headlines to sell magazines and clicks.

While all this could have been portrayed respectfully, Carr and her team instead adopt a shock value posture. Calling this a documentary would be the highest compliment.

Britney Vs Spears reeks of ‘imagine someone made a film with people who were bad for Britney’. While it surely aimed to answer a lot of questions posed after the NYT documentary, the OMG tone of it all overshadowed what could have been a productive watch.

There is so much about Britney Vs Spears that does not sit right.

In the film’s attempt to be diplomatic, it veered into trash talk territory with an overly dramatic score. Spears’ divorce from Kevin Federline was treated with an insultingly tabloid tone, furthering the discourse that the singer was perhaps actually not capable of being a mother at all. Team that with visuals of Rosie O’Donnell cheering about the divorce and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Another big question mark: why was BreathHeavy.com’s founder featured? Did we really need the ‘expert’ opinion of a tabloid to understand what much more reliable news media had reported?

Carr’s clarity of purpose can be seen, but it leaves the film prone to hyperbole – rather risky in a public case like this one. It is also too easy to feel as though this served as a vanity project’s of Carr’s, particularly with her and Rolling Stone journalist Jenny Eliscu sat in front of a desk like true crime podcasters, piecing everything together.

Frankly, this should not have been made. Like Britney, I was scratching my head – when I was not rolling my eyes or shaking my head in disgust. As for Netflix… well, it does not always get it right, I guess.

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