Girl Model

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/09/12 12:40:22

"Not a pretty picture."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: When one sees a documentary with a title like "Girl Model" on a festival schedule, it's probably not a bad idea to schedule a little time between it and the next film to wash a bit of the scummy feeling off. What's particularly interesting about this one is that it is that sort of uneasy-making movie without a doubt, but it also presents a bit more complex than just exploitation. "Girl Model" is not ambiguous, but still capable of leaving the audience unsure about what it has seen.

We start in Siberia - Novosibersk, to be precise - where model scout Ashley Arbaugh is looking for some fresh faces for an agency in Japan. Out of a large crowd assembled by NOAH Models (which has the local market cornered), Ashley chooses Nadya Vall, a willowy thirteen-year-old who has the agency employing Ashley craves. Nadya goes off to Japan alone, despite not speaking Japanese or even English, and Ashley heads back home to Connecticut.

It's not long before filmmakers Ashley Sabin & David Redmon reveal that Arbaugh also modeled in Japan in her teen years, and one hopes that we're not watching history repeat itself. Nadya is a sweet kid who probably thought that she was going to be the plucky heroine in a rags-to-riches fairy tale, and while the audience doesn't witness much in the way of active malice, loneliness and confusion soon take their toll. Redmon & Sabin are pretty hands-off with Nadya and her roommate Madlen, getting a little background information from those around the young Russian girls without doing much to diminish the audience's sense of just how strange this must seem.

The time spent with Ashley, though, is what truly makes Girl Model stand out. Sabin & Redmon follow her at work and home, interview her, and get access to her video diaries from her own time as a girl model, and "hypocrite" might be one of the nicer things audiences call her. Her words present someone whose disdain for this business is visceral, and yet she spends her time perpetuating it, and that contradiction is fascinating. It doesn't make her sympathetic - moments of "something really messed her up" are more than balanced by "that's no excuse" - but Redmon & Sabin play those opposing aspects of her personality against each other in a way that invites the audience to react with something other than distaste, if they'll allow themselves.

If they don't, that's understandable; Arbaugh isn't the only one who occasionally makes one wonder just why some of these people signed a release. There are hints, occasionally, that worse things are going on that Sabin & Redmon aren't privy to, and some may be disappointed that they don't spend more time on that sort of sensationalistic material. It quite likely would have drowned the close looks at Nadya and Ashley out, though, and the way this situation seems to quietly crush their souls is, while horrible, undeniably powerful.

(And if what the filmmakers said in the festival Q&A makes it to the DVD release in some sort of commentary or featurette form, it will be an even more intriguing package; one doesn't need to know the genesis of the film or any of what went on behind the scenes to enjoy the film, but they make things even more interesting.)

That tight focus and quiet maintenance of an exact distance (far enough to observe, close enough to see) makes "Girl Model" an engrossing documentary. Ninety percent of it is fairly cut-and-dried, but that other ten percent makes it something special.

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