“About Cherry” strives to display the porn industry—or at least its San Francisco chapter—in a more positive light than in “Hardcore,” “Boogie Nights” and other outwardly leering, inwardly moralistic takes on the subject. The directorial debut of author Stephen Elliott, who worked as a stripper in his twenties, and co-written by porn star Lorelei Lee, the film is refreshingly devoid of rape, drug-induced degradation and other staples of the genre. It wants to free us of judgment, to prove that the trade doesn’t only attract damaged women, that it’s become more egalitarian; there are vastly more female directors, and more studios with female audiences in mind.
The idea seems foolproof: only insiders like Elliott and Lee could give a truly objective take on this controversial, and this closed-off, an industry. They also possess the insight to answer lingering, troublesome questions about porn. Yes, actresses in porn are paid more than men; some of them, like Jenna Jameson, have become successful authors boasting of their independence. But why, in this enlightened age, is so much porn still so violent, so filled with male power fantasies about humiliating women, lowering their status? Why do so many porn actresses say they feel “empowered” by such depictions? More central to the film itself, how has porn targeted at women differentiated itself from more mainstream porn, and how have filmmakers in this niche industry reached common ground on what entices female viewers?
Unfortunately “About Cherry” not only fails to address these questions with much depth it’s also dull, choppily edited and fatally vague. It begins with a great deal of tension, documenting the dreary life of rail-thin, platinum blonde eighteen year-old Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw). The familiar jiggly, hand-held camera trails her from a lonely Southern California laundromat job to her broken home, where she looks after her drunken mother (a typically excellent Lili Taylor), protecting her and her traumatized sister from a brute stepfather. She has a platonic male best friend, Andrew (Dev Patel), whose sexuality preference is kept ambiguous for much of the film, and a sleazy rock singer boyfriend (Jonny Weston), who tries to convince her to pose nude for a photo shoot at his friend’s studio.
Angelina is clearly curious about sex but not, it would seem, promiscuous in the slightest. Even though we know—from the advertised plot summary—that she’s eventually going to join the adult film industry, we expect the decision to come slowly, through her seriously weighing the pros and cons of suddenly being in the public eye, scrutinized in ways that could scar her entire future.
Yet, as played by the strikingly beautiful yet emotionally vacant Hinshaw, Angelina registers as too nonchalant, too self-assured for someone this young and coming from such a rough home. Her spontaneous decisions have no weight, no urgency. She says no to her boyfriend about the photo shoot; the next day she agrees to it, with zero explanation. Once she’s relocated to San Francisco, with Andrew in tow, and landed a waitressing job at a strip joint, she’s referred to a lucrative porn agency; she demurs; then the next day she goes in for an interview.
Yes, the on-set environment seems sanitized and comfortable; it’s not some disgusting fat chauvinist running the cameras, it’s a soothing, good-hearted lesbian played by Heather Graham. But how exactly does this decidedly heterosexual high-school girl decide so quickly to shoot a girl-on-girl scene? How does she so easily defend her career choice even after her romance with a handsome lawyer (James Franco) heats up? Every naysayer in the film is shrugged off, and Angelina’s every moment of doubt is hastily dismissed. She makes capricious decisions; she hurts people’s feelings as a result; she feels temporarily bad; she prevails.
The same pattern is true of Graham’s character, Margaret, who begins neglecting her more rigid, conventional lover Jillian (Diane Farr) after becoming obsessed with Angelina. Every complaint that Jillian throws at her—such as the wrongheadedness of her lusting after an ingenue twenty-five years her junior—is cast aside. It’s great that Elliott and Lee haven’t painted the life of porn stars in a belittling or condescending light, but as a result their approach seems timid. There are admittedly a few wrenching scenes: Franco’s coke-snorting self-loathing lawyer hypocritically—if understandably—calling Angelina’s lifestyle “disgusting.” Jillian’s bringing Margaret to orgasm while simultaneously breaking up with her. But there’s no follow-up; the subsidiary characters, no matter how reasonable their skepticism, are just meant to be obstacles to the lead females’ self-acceptance.
The male characters, in particular, are sketched weakly. Even a multi-faceted talent like Franco can’t make sense of his character, who is variously kindhearted, forgetful, dope-crazy, smug, tolerant and harshly intolerant, all within roughly twenty minutes of screen time.
Patel gives his all as Andrew; unlike Hinshaw, he actually looks eighteen. But his big scene with Hinshaw is a crock. Despite her need to be accepted as a sexually liberated woman, Angelina explodes at Andrew when she catches him masturbating to her film. Put on the defensive, Andrew finally snaps, venting his repressed rage at her (“Why am I the only one who can’t see you naked?”). Yet instead of sympathizing, Angelina chastises Andrew, concluding that he’s objectifying her, that he’s no different from the average perverted male viewer. Her retort is stupid and profoundly unfair, yet the filmmakers clearly side with her, and again, a potentially compelling setup is shot dead by a simplistic cop-out. In the end, “About Cherry” is long on teasing nudity, short on virtually everything else.
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