Judge Patrick Bromley is the very model of a modern major movie critic.
Just who are the girls in those fashion ads?
Like the dark mirror of TV's America's Next Top Model, the 2011 documentary Girl Model explores what getting into the industry for most young women. We assume it's a whirlwind ride of fame and glamour. Here's a movie that proves it's something else entirely.
A film crew follows 13-year-old Nadya, who, in the opening scene, is chosen from a group of gaunt, bikini-clad young Siberian girls as the winner a beauty pageant, for which she is awarded a modeling contract in Tokyo. Nadya and another young woman are put together as roommates and begin working in Japan's super-competitive modeling industry, and though they do start showing up in pictures (after taking "portfolio" shots), the checks do not arrive. Meanwhile, a talent scout named Ashley—herself a former model—grows more and more disenchanted with the business of selling young women.
I don't want to go so far as to suggest that the transplanting of young Russian girls to Japan is akin to sex trafficking (though a case could be made), but it is impossible to watch Girl Model and not see that they're at least little more than cattle being shipped from place to place. They are exploited. They are taken advantage of. They are 13. How this is not only not considered a crime but actually fueling a billion-dollar industry is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. It's fascinating, then, that talent scout Ashley Arbaugh (who receives a "creative consultant" credit on the movie) seems to be so complicit in the practices we see here; she has been critical of the industry in the past and is clearly uncomfortable with what goes on, but there she is, pointing out girls who fit the right "type" to be shipped off to Japan. I get it. People have to make a living. But there is a disconnect between what Arbaugh seems to believe and what she does, and it's a compelling one—enough that I wish more of the movie could have focused on her.
At only 77 minutes, the movie feels somewhat underdeveloped. At the same time, what more is there to necessarily say on the subject? I guess the filmmakers could have profiled several young women—that's the typical format for a movie like this—and maybe it would have shown one girl succeeding in the way we imagine. But this is not that movie, which is specifically concerned with the a) supply of young models in Russia and b) the demand for young white girls to model in Japan. It also would have given lie to the movie's messages. Profile three girls and one moves to New York as a successful model, now it looks like 33 percent of all young models make it. The truth is, sadly, much closer to what's profiled in Girl Model. Any young woman who has watched Tyra Banks' reality series and dreamed of the life should be required to see this documentary. It can be a cruel, cruel industry, and one not worth selling your body.
First Run Features' DVD of Girl Model is in keeping with the movie's humble roots. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks fine for a movie shot on what looks like slightly better-than-consumer-grade video. Everything is bright and clean enough, though colors are bland and sometimes have a kind of greenish hue—common issues with a video image. Still, the aesthetic works, because it gives the movie a sense of immediacy and legitimacy; we feel even more like a fly on the wall. The 2.0 audio track is fine; it can sometimes be challenging to make out the dialogue (especially in scenes with a lot of people talking), but much of movie is told in subtitles, so it's less of an issue than it might otherwise be. The only bonus feature is a collection of eight deleted scenes.
Girl Model won't really tell you anything you don't already know about the modeling industry: it's exploitative and icky, turning young women in cattle. The visual of a room full of pallid, undernourished teen girls is one of the more depressing sights I've seen in movies, and things really only get worse from there. Anyone looking for a documentary that blows the lid off the business of beauty isn't going to find it here, but it's still a solid effort. Yes, the life of a model can be glamourous. But it can also be awful and disturbing. Some things just speak for themselves.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2013 Patrick Bromley; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.