Jennifer Grey is ‘Stellar’ as Diet Guru Gwen Shamblin
‘Gwen Shamblin: Starving For Salvation’
★★★ (out of four) Lifetime presents a film directed by John L’ecuyer and written by Gregory Small and Richard Blaney. On Lifetime
The first time we see an almost unrecognizable Jennifer Grey as the late controversial diet guru and self-appointed church leader Gwen Shamblin in the Lifetime movie “Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation,” it’s a jolt to the system. It’s quite likely you’ve never witnessed such a towering mountain of blonde hair atop a head, to the point where this has to be an exaggeration. But if you’ve seen photos of Shamblin or if you watched the five-part HBO documentary series “The Way Down,” you know the hair and makeup are spot-on.
Most important, Grey does a stellar job of disappearing into the character and becoming Shamblin, from her early days as a diet-obsessed young nutritionist who founded a modest weight-loss program called the Weigh Down Workshop in Tennessee through the exponential growth of the program to the point where it had more than 250,000 members and Shamblin founded her own church. She had become either a powerful and influential force for good or the leader of a cultlike organization, depending on your perspective.
While “Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation” can’t possibly cover the story as thoroughly as a five-part documentary series, it does a fine job of hitting all the bullet points in Lifetime movie fashion, i.e., there’s nothing too salacious or bold to be seen here, folks. (There’s more Shamblin on the way, as HBO Max is developing a scripted adaptation of the documentary, with Sarah Paulson, who has played Marcia Clark and Linda Tripp on “American Crime Story” arcs, slated to play another headline-making figure from the 1990s.)
The main storyline kicks off in Franklin, Tennessee, in 1991, with Shamblin on the almighty scale that is the focal point of her life, lamenting that she’s gained four pounds. After praying for divine guidance, Gwen has an epiphany: Hunger is “a spiritual emptiness that can only be filled by God.” This becomes the foundation of the Weigh Down method, that one can “pray away the pounds.”
With Gwen’s amiable husband David (Alain Goulem) supporting her every step of the way (until things spiral out of control), Gwen becomes ever more ambitious, publishing a bestselling book and constantly invoking Christianity as she recruits disciples to help spread the word. Her ego and her hair keep getting bigger, and she does little to discourage the adulation of fans who chant her name and follow her every command.
Over a brisk running time of 89 minutes, “Starving for Salvation” takes us through Gwen founding the Remnant Fellowship Church on a compound in Brentwood, Tennessee, forcing her employees to join the church and getting increasingly involved in the personal lives of church members, even as she gets a divorce from David and takes up with a failed actor-singer and obvious huckster named Joe Lara (Vincent Walsh). As one longtime employee of Gwen’s put it, “Feels like Gwen is more interested in playing God than serving Him.”
Most disturbingly, we see the moment when Gwen allegedly advised a follower to employ harsh and cruel disciplinary tactics on her 8-year-old son, who eventually died of acute and chronic abuse. Grey is chillingly good in the scenes in which Gwen casually and arrogantly dismisses a detective’s queries and then visits the couple in jail, telling them they “misinterpreted” her teachings. (No church leaders were charged in the real-life case.)
The Weigh Down Diet made Gwen Shamblin a wealthy woman. She lived with her family in a historic mansion just down the road from the Remnant Church, and she lavished gifts upon second husband Joe, including a Cessna Citation 501 jet.
On May 29, 2021, Lara and six church leaders, including Joe (who was piloting), were killed when the jet crashed into Percy Priest Lake near Smyrna, Tennessee. “Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation” concludes with a pretty damning quote from Gwen herself: “When there is greed, there is no faith in God at all.”