4.5 out of 5 stars

The most immediately striking aspect of Lance Oppenheim’s documentary Spermworld is its sense of intimacy. Even in the shot selection itself, the viewer is placed on the frontlines of the film’s conversations, at times being brought uncomfortably close to the drama that unfolds as these subjects willingly discuss some of the most sensitive topics in their lives. Not only that but these scenes are depicted in such a candid way that they genuinely feel unscripted.

When reflecting on the real people involved in Spermworld, it’s difficult not to consider or refer to them as characters. The film’s visual style lends itself well to this sense of intimacy, with establishing shots of outdoor locations or hallways that possess a dreamlike quality, which perfectly fits the strange, awkward, and oddly sweet story that unfolds. These ethereal-looking shots couldn’t be more different from how urgent and real the drama in this film feels, exploring the bizarre world of online sperm donation.

The reasons for seeking out a donor are perfectly understandable, with screenshots from a Facebook group for donors and recipients showing that they choose from the pool of candidates here rather than at a sperm bank for two reasons: the low (and sometimes non-existent) cost of online donors, and the fact that this way one can meet the biological father of their child. These stories become significantly stranger when you consider the motivations of the donors. Initially, Spermworld starts quite sweetly, with these good Samaritans—Tyree, Steve, and Ari—making it clear that they are not in this for the money.

In one scene, a couple discusses their past with Tyree and his girlfriend. This moment, which should feel awkward given it’s just a preamble before he heads off to masturbate and provide his sample, is surprisingly tender. Empathy practically radiates from this film, whether from the subjects themselves or from Oppenheim, who has done an excellent job of ingratiating himself with these people. As a result, the viewing experience is so insightful in uncovering the inner lives of the documentary’s subjects that it feels almost revelatory.

Without Spermworld’s subjects’ self-conscious glances towards the cameras or the people operating them, it’s easy to forget that the drama unfolding is entirely real. That said, the reality behind these stories becomes evident again through the shades of awkwardness and embarrassment that linger in some of these moments, too pronounced to be a fictional recreation of reality.

All three donors are incredibly different, but what unites them is a need to continue donating sperm. For all their altruism, it becomes clear they also derive a significant amount of satisfaction from this lifestyle, even if not all of them accept payment for their services. It might not be explicitly stated, but Steve is lonely and looking for something that will simultaneously give his life meaning and allow him to help others.

He becomes a potential donor for Rachel, a woman with cystic fibrosis whose life is limited by her disability. Some of the cracks in Steve’s life, or at least, the ways he tries to find meaning in it, are revealed through small moments that feel profound. In his explanation about why he donates, Steve mentions his desire to help people and says that he would sometimes spend time in shops looking for people who needed assistance with items that were out of reach. He isn’t just willing to help those in need; he feels a compulsion to assist them since it’s only in doing this that he finds meaning in his own life.

Then there are moments in Spermworld that are so vividly portrayed that they feel like they were scripted and story-boarded, like when Steve and Rachel watch David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) together. Oppenheim knew exactly what he was looking for during this movie night, as the only sequence shown from Lynch’s dreamlike film is the sex scene between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring’s characters. 

In one shot, as Rachel watches on, her expression indecipherable yet easy to project emotions of discomfort onto, Steve, out of focus from where he sits on the other end of the couch, looks over at her to gauge her reaction. This tilt of his head is akin to a shark slowly entering the frame, as although Steve’s longing for her isn’t directly communicated, it’s painfully obvious all the same.

Steve isn’t the only donor looking to achieve a sense of purpose here. Tyree is seeking to better himself through these donations but prioritizes helping total strangers over his attempts to conceive a child with his partner Atasha. Ari is sort of in a similar position, but to much greater extremes, where his entire life is dominated by his children. Unlike Steve and Tyree, Ari tries to be involved in each child’s life, which is no easy task when he has well over 100 of them.

Ari’s storyline (or perhaps more accurately, his life), is the most bizarre aspect of this film. It’s clear he’s in intense denial about how integral this donation process is to his sense of purpose. To a lesser extent, this is also true of Steve and Tyree. None of the trio ever explicitly state how important these donations are to them. They recognise it as a force for good, but it’s fascinating to see how uncritically they evaluate the impact these donations have on their well-being.

It’s in Spermworld‘s strangeness that its charm can be found, but that’s hardly the only quality this film boasts. Its electronic soundtrack by Ari Balouzian is warm and mostly upbeat, with a playfulness that leans into the film’s more surreal elements, while also capturing the beauty and sadness in these people’s lives. At first, Spermworld is a curiosity, and then, when it’s clear that it’s hitting all its marks on a technical and emotional level, it becomes a marvel. The opening sequence is gorgeous, which, along with some audio snippets of mothers describing what it means to love their child, beautifully captures the love that emanates from the documentary’s subjects.

It’s in these gentle, uplifting moments that the film does justice for those looking for donors. While the donors themselves have deeply unorthodox lives, Oppenheim isn’t looking to demonize or ridicule anyone here. Tyree, Ari and Steve all have their dignity and grace preserved in this documentary, and the fact that they were all prepared to reveal these layers of their lives and identities speaks to the director’s talent for getting his subjects to open up. In some ways, this is Spermworld’s strongest quality: though it might not be directly addressed, it underlies the compelling journey the viewer goes on with these characters.

As the film veers toward its climax, it blossoms into something truly beautiful, feeling in these sections as if it’s coming alive. These scenes contain hope, tragedy, beauty and a healthy dose of strange, borderline surrealistic moments (which almost always involve Ari and his bizarre yet admirable lifestyle). All of this is paired with a score that consistently employs appropriate stylistic and tonal choices, dreamlike visuals and scenes so delicate, earnest and well-made that they blur the lines between fiction and reality.

This movie is everything one could hope for in a documentary. Whatever tone or emotion you’re looking for, Spermworld is the ideal choice, fulfilling every requirement and steadily improving throughout its runtime.


Cast & Crew

director: Lance Oppenheim.
writers: Daniel Garber & Lance Oppenheim.
producers: Lauren Belfer, Lance Oppenheim, Sophie Kissinger, Christian Vazquez, Alana Hauser, Daniel Garber, Kathleen Lingo, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg & Eli B. Despres.
starring: Atasha Peña Clay, Tyree Kelly, Ari Nagel, Rachel Stanley & Steve Walker.