Tribeca Review: Shelf Life


Back when I first started covering the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, I was mostly interested in finding unique or odd movies that piqued my interest. I was looking at finding some avant-garde cinema and examining it by how much it pushes the boundaries of filmmaking and how unconventional it could be. While I still keep an eye out for bizarre movies that aren’t the norm, I’m currently much more interested in looking for movies about topics that interest me, even if they look a bit conventional. And there’s nothing I find more interesting than cheese.

I love cheese. Whether it be a simple grilled cheese sandwich or as part of a charcuterie board, I am always down for sampling some cheese with various jams and nuts. So when I saw that Shelf Life was a documentary exploring the creation of cheese and comparing the aging of cheese to the aging of a person’s life, I was slightly intrigued by it. It was an interesting metaphor and I wanted to give it a fair shake. However, by the time I finished this one-hour and fifteen-minute documentary, it had felt like I had spent years watching a slow and scattershot expose about how much people like cheese.

Shelf Life (2024) - Official Tribeca Festival 2024 Trailer

Shelf Life
Director: Ian Cheney
Release Date: June 7, 2024 (Tribeca Film Festival)

The bulk of the documentary has us traveling around the world to see how cheese is made, maintained, and sampled in various societies. We start with a cheesemaker in the Pyrenees Mountains, then shift to countries like the United States, Georgia, Egypt, and even Japan. In these countries, the viewer is exactly that – an observer of how the process of making cheese has been around for centuries and how much, or little, it’s changed. We see how each country has its different approaches to creating it, from factories that produce blocks and blocks of cheese, to an old cheesemaker in a hut slowly making blocks of cheese with her family. No matter how you slice it, cheese, Shelf Life argues, is a fundamental part of the human experience.

From a multicultural perspective, Shelf Life is a fairly compelling watch. Here in the United States, cheese is a food that is featured in plenty of dishes, but looking at cultures where cheese is much rarer offers a glimpse into countries where cheese is seen as an aberration. Towards the end of the documentary, Shelf Life offers an extended look at cheese making in Japan, a country that doesn’t often consume cheese. Seeing how cheese is made in Japan and having a microbiologist/cheesemaker teach children some of the science behind it as they are hypnotized by a wad of mozzarella, something most of them have never seen before, is fascinating to watch. It’s these cultural examinations where the film’s strengths lie.

Shelf Life

We mostly learn about the science of cheese, with a handful of microbiologists talking about the specific microbes that grow on the cheese and what exactly makes a good cheese versus a bad cheese. It’s not the main focus of the documentary, mind you, but when Shelf Life wants to go into detail about the process of making cheese, it will offhandedly spout some scientific facts about it instead of actually explaining the process of production. 


And therein lies the biggest problem with Shelf Life – for a documentary about cheese, we hardly learn anything about it. A large amount of Shelf Life consists of people waxing poetic about cheese and the parallels that cheese can have with human life and the human experience, but it’s all a bit too esoteric. It’s an interesting comparison, but it approaches the subject as if you, the viewer, are already at least somewhat familiar with cheese and its creation. I couldn’t tell you one thing about how cheese was made and outside of some of the offhanded mentions about the scientific reason behind the maturity of cheese, I still couldn’t tell you anything about it. 

Shelf Life

Because of this, the documentary comes across as dull. From the very first segment where we follow a cheesemaker in the Pyrenees Mountains, the most interesting thing that happens is when a fly decides to land on a piece of cheese he’s talking about. It’s like how years ago when the 2020 vice presidential debate was happening and the only thing that people remember was how the fly landed on Mike Pence’s head. I can’t tell you anything he said, I can only tell you that the unexpected fly was the most exciting thing that happened, even when he decided to pivot about the fly’s role in the cheesemaking process.

I get that we’re meant to be an observer in Shelf Life, but we’re too far removed to find any of the material interesting or relatable. When we see the laborious process of how cheese is made and the effects it has on culture and different generations, that’s when the documentary shines. But those interesting beats are few and far between, making Shelf Life’s biggest crime how boring it is. While cheese may get better with age and time, this documentary is a bit too listless and slow to capture my attention. 




Shelf Life has moments where its examination of cheese is interesting and far reaching, but most of it is lifeless and not for those who know little about cheese.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.