Girl Model


Girl Model

Meat markets come in all sorts of varieties.

(2011) Documentary (Cinereach) Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh, Madlen, Tigram. Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

There is a certain glamour inherent with the modeling industry. Beautiful girls flown to exotic locations, dressing in designer couture, adored by millions. So when talent agents come calling, it’s not hard to understand why young girls answer with eyes full of stars.

One such agent is Ashley Arbaugh who herself was a teen model. Her territory is mostly the former Soviet Union where she plucks young girls to work in the lucrative Japanese market. The promise of easy cash and a foot in the door of an industry that’s notoriously hard to break into brings girls swarming to try-outs, particularly in economically depressed places like Siberia.

Nadya Vall lives in a small village in Siberia. Her parents are poor; they live in a tiny little house that her father has been adding on additional room so that his children may have rooms of their own. However work has stalled on that as he is barely making enough money to make ends meet as it is.

Her shy, sweet demeanor and lustrous child-like beauty get her a contract with Ashley and her Russian boss Tigram. Tigram sees himself as a kind of savior for these young girls, taking them out of bad situations and giving them fame and fortune. Of course, he gets a cut of both but that’s a small price to pay isn’t it?

Nadya sets out for Tokyo and things turn into a nightmare from there. Nobody from the agency meets Nadya at the airport; she is lost, not knowing where to go or what to do and doesn’t speak any other language than Russian; tearfully she begs the filmmakers to translate to English to the Japanese clerks to find out information as to where she can find the apartment she’s supposed to stay at.

Eventually things sort themselves out and she is set up in a tiny little apartment that looks to be the size of a walk-in closet. She has a roommate, Madlen, who is supposed to share the space with her – and it’s not a lot of space, let’s face it.

Japanese law requires her to have two paying jobs in order to remain in the country for the full length of the visa. She is sent to try-out after try-out, to shoot after shoot with no sales forthcoming. The two are made to realize that if their measurements increase even by a centimeter they will be sent packing and not paid; in fact, because of the cost of their apartment and their airfare, they will be deep in debt to the agency.

Homesickness, the psychological wear and tear of not being wanted and the general indifference of those who are supposed to be watching over them take their toll. Madlen, who at last has a credit card from her family that allows her to purchase food, eats her way back home on purpose leaving Nadya alone in a country that she doesn’t understand – and at 13 years old, is she really equipped to handle this situation?

This is absolutely riveting stuff. There are no real regulatory agencies that watch over these girls. 13 and 14 year old girls are encouraged to lie about their ages and are sent to Japan and other countries unsupervised and essentially thrown out into the waters to sink or swim – and they mostly sink. There is a good deal of hypocrisy – Arbaugh tells her next set of girls airily that everyone makes money in Japan after we’ve just clearly seen two girls who returned home deeply in debt, and we are given the impression that it isn’t all that uncommon. Everybody gets paid but the models.

This isn’t just exploitation, it’s white slavery. There needs to be an industry watchdog to ensure that these girls get proper supervision, understand what it is they’re getting into and have some regulatory power to watch that the girls aren’t exploited. Unfortunately, as Arbaugh herself says late in the film, it isn’t much of a step to go from modeling to prostitution. After all, both are instances of a woman selling her body.

I didn’t expect that there was a story here that I’d be hooked by. Fashion interests me not in the least and I’d always had the perception that models are mostly self-absorbed divas who had a very easy life that required very little work on their part. After all, how hard can looking beautiful be?

Obviously, being a guy makes me completely dumb and uneducated as to how hard work it is for women to look beautiful, models or no so perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance. However one screening of this documentary is enough to shock my system into understanding that there is exploitation of children going on in this industry – and it needs to be stopped.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling and heartbreaking. Eye-opening look on a shadowy world.

REASONS TO STAY: Pounds its point a little bit too relentlessly. May have benefitted from some follow-up.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some profanity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the making of the film, Arbaugh got a job with Elite Models in New York scouting American girls.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Picture Me

JAPAN LOVERS: Some aspects of the Japanese culture are explored here.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Monsieur Lazhar

Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.