Unlike the object of its scathing attention, Kirby Dick’s documentary about the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board is merry and bright and loads of fun. When you’re on the side of the First Amendment angels, it can be tempting to get on the old high horse and wax as self-righteous as the self-appointed guardians of our collective morality. For the most part, Dick — an entrancing moniker for one who crowds the screen with as many hyperactive peckers as can be lawfully captured in 97 minutes — avoids finger wagging, skillfully allowing others to stake out the political territory for him. Filled with snappy graphics, a jaunty score, a pictorial history of American film censorship and an entertaining wheeze designed to uncover the hitherto secret identities of MPAA raters, This Film Is Not Yet Rated’s tone is breezy, its pace brisk, as Dick coasts us through interviews, most of them with fellow travelers in the free-speech movement, a few with those from the other side.

Filmmakers burned by the system — among them, you won’t be astonished to hear, Matt Stone (South Park), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies) and John Waters (just about every movie he’s made) — complain of being censored and/or having to censor themselves, especially when working in independent film, which is far more heavily policed than studio movies. Directors Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Mary Harron (American Psycho), actress Maria Bello, and two male film critics (Stephen Farber — who knew? — is a bemused former rater) fume over the board’s well-known tolerance of screen violence, especially against women, even as it smacks down hard on bad language and sexuality. (The raters appear to be unusually phobic about rear-entry or otherwise innovative sex — amuse yourself imagining the notes they take.) Film historians elaborate on the organization’s cozy relations with the studios and their corporate masters, especially under the leadership of former ad man and Washington lobbyist Jack Valenti. And dear old Bingham Ray, a veteran indie-film producer who can be counted on to avoid self-censorship in all its forms, calls the American way of movie censorship a “fascist system” — which, if nothing else, may help explain why he spends a lot of time on the golf course these days.

Dick is less concerned with the question of whether there should even be a ratings system than he is with the ludicrously secretive workings of the organization, which First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus nails as a last bastion of closed-door policymaking in America. This is a smart, if evasive, move, since the former issue is as thorny as a rosebush. On the principle that one covert operation deserves another, but as much as anything for the sake of peppy narrative, Dick hires a couple of cheerful lesbian private dicks (so to speak) to ferret out the supposedly anonymous raters, mostly by lurking around the MPAA’s Encino headquarters, rummaging through garbage and noting registration plates. Secret society or not, information is frighteningly easy to come by these days, and in no time at all the spies are tailing the raters between work and home. In a final coup de grace, Dick submits This Film Is Not Yet Rated to the ratings board, with results that elicit only the most theatrical surprise from a director whose oeuvre includes a portrait of pain performance artist Bob Flanagan and a study of priestly sex abuse. And here’s where things start to get a little slippery: On one side of a split screen, we see Dick — good looking, mild-mannered, eminently reasonable — questioning his NC-17 and vainly seeking specifics about why he got it. On the other side is a drawing of the board’s big chief, Joan Graves (fair enough, since she refused to talk on camera), only she’s as thin-lipped and mean-looking as the cartoon of the board’s attorney, who threatens by phone to cut Dick off at the knees in the event of an appeal.

We learn that the board’s raters, far from being parents with small children (as Valenti and Graves claim), are overwhelmingly older, with grown children. If that, as Dick implies, makes them somehow less qualified to judge what constitutes unsuitable viewing for young children, then what are we to make of the qualifications of the two childless film critics he wheels in to inveigh against the ratings system? I’m with them, but you can’t have it both ways. When Graves turns the tables on Dick and pointedly asks if he would show his own movie to his children, he waffles that it would depend on the child and the context. (Really? Anal sex, three-way sex, mutual masturbation? I don’t think so.) And there we have it. The movie’s arguments for transparency, for a drastic revision of copyright law based on fair usage and for a change in the composition of the ratings board are for the most part unassailable. But it’s fuzzy on who or what, if anybody, might replace the current system. The government, whatever that means? Experts, whoever they are? Word of mouth? What might a viable free-speech ratings system look like?

In the end, Dick equivocates on whether there should be a ratings system at all. And here, context is indeed everything. In the film, Waters argues that in the Internet age, youngsters have access to just about any form of brutality or sexual depravity known to man at the click of a mouse, but his claim could just as easily support a case for more, not less, regulation. Decisions about which movies kids see may well be a matter for responsible parents to decide. But a responsible parent is an informed one, and most parents don’t have time to run out and see movies just to decide whether they’re okay for the kids. As a critic, I admired American Psycho and thought it an important piece of cultural commentary, but having seen it, I wouldn’t let anyone under 16 near it. No ratings board should have anything to say about the aesthetic merits of Sin City, but I’d sure have liked to know in advance about the endless brutalization of women that made that frightful movie one I wouldn’t take a dog to, let alone a minor.

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED | Directed by KIRBY DICK | Produced by EDDIE SCHMIDT | Released by IFC Films | Nuart

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