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Case Number 11941: Small Claims Court

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Working Girls

First Run Features // 1986 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // August 24th, 2007

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker was thrilled to discover that this was not a film with Melanie Griffith playing identical twins.

The Charge

"The two things I love most in life are sex and money…I never knew until much later they were connected."
—Lucy (Ellen McElduff)

The Case

Molly is a struggling photographer in an apparently happy relationship with her girlfriend. Gina would like to open a boutique someday. Dawn is studying law. At present, they are Working Girls, mid-level prostitutes operating out of a New York City apartment/bordello run by Lucy (Ellen McElduff, Chinese Coffee).

In director Lizzie Borden's subtle, slice-of-life drama, we watch the "girls" during a typical day (it seems most of their business occurs during the day). The women man the telephones, make small talk about their personal lives, have lunch, and entertain clients, mostly "regulars" (generally older business types). They spend a lot of time complaining about their "boss," Lucy, who's out shopping in the beginning of the film. When she shows up, we find her to be critical and picky. She admonishes the "girls" (she addresses each as "Babe") for being sloppy, having bad attitudes, not dressing right, and so on. She worries that they are not being honest with her, and she's right: When Lucy's not there, the girls fudge appointment times (reporting a half-hour when a client has stayed, and paid for, an hour) or just fail to report some appointments altogether.

Were it not for the fact that they are stripping down and having sex for money, these women could be office workers or waitresses. They greet their clients with an efficient familiarity, go about their business, wash up, and wait for the next appointment.

Borden (Born in Flames) gives us a look at prostitution that is both refreshingly without sensationalism and maddeningly mundane. Many films turn sex workers into types (heart of gold, victim, salt of the earth, unintelligent or uneducated, or physically perfect yet unattainable fantasy figures), when the truth is, they are just people who have chosen this line of work because it pays better than, say, being a cashier. Sex is a business much like any other. Dawn notes, without irony, that she has been faithful to her boyfriend for five years, ignoring the fact that she turns several tricks a day. But it's easy to see her point. More than orgasms, it's intimacy that is faked here.

The actresses play off each other very well, creating a sense of shared history. The dialogue is largely very natural and engaging, though with the occasional clunky line and bits of business that serve as exposition. Louise Smith is particularly good as Molly, the central character, and McElduff excellent as the fussy, self-deluding Lucy, who thinks of her establishment as a dating service.

There are some graphic depictions of the girls (mainly Molly) at work, but the sex scenes are not at all erotic. The men have their fantasies and they act them out with the women, who stay "in character," then often comment and laugh about them later with the other women. There is little feeling that the women and their clients are victims or victimizers; what comes across strongest is a shared vulnerability.

A commentary track, which was part of an earlier release of this film by Anchor Bay, features Borden, her director of photography, and Amanda Goodwin, who plays Dawn. The track offers lots of trivia and background on individual scenes and the film as a whole. Much of the conversation focuses on the difficulties and joys of shooting with a minuscule budget (the film was made for under $100,000). There are several interesting anecdotes, including one about the actresses applying for jobs at an actual bordello as part of their research. (Goodwin was hired, the others were not.)

While Borden sometimes explains the obvious ("I wanted to show…how so much of this is waiting around for the clients to come and then snapping into action"), she also discusses aspects of the film that touch on racial and sexual politics that might not be apparent in a single viewing. The film is very low-key, and occasionally Borden's attempts at social/political statements are lost in the subtlety.

The anamorphic transfer looks very good for a 20-year-old, low-budget film, and the audio track is clear. In addition to the commentary, we get the trailer for Working Girls, trailers for other First Run films, and a stills gallery by photographer Nan Goldin (whose photos are used to represent Molly's work).

Prostitution is a polarizing issue, but Borden gives us an even-handed film that neither condemns nor celebrates the "oldest profession." It's a fine piece of work that encourages discussion rather than providing a pat point of view.

For these "working girls," the business is all above-board. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio commentary with Director Lizzie Borden, Director of Photography Julie Irola, and Actress Amanda Goodwin
• Photo Gallery
• Trailers


• IMDb

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