It’s Mumblecore “Showgirls”!
Published on October 5th, 2012 | by Judith Dry0
Running time: 102 minutes; Rated R.
If someone told you to go see the film “About Cherry” because Heather Graham delivers an excellent performance, would you trust that person’s judgment? I certainly wouldn’t. I would smile and nod, silently judging his or her film taste and mourning the loss of my pride and my time, which went out the window when I saw “Hope Springs” and “Gray Matters.” If that person then told me that “About Cherry” was the story of a young girl’s journey into San Francisco’s porn industry, I would jump from my seat to go find the next screening of the film—which is precisely what I did.
“About Cherry” is not what I would call a good movie, but I loved every minute of it. If Ashley Hinshaw, the actress playing Cherry, were a former teen television icon trying to eschew her squeaky clean image, “About Cherry” would be the next “Showgirls.” It’s got Heather Graham as Gina Gershon, James Franco as Kyle MacLachlan, and Dev Patel as Gina Ravera, who plays Molly Abrams, the character in “Showgirls” who gets raped in the single most tasteless display of unnecessary sexual violence in all of film history! Just kidding, Dev Patel doesn’t get raped—at least not physically. But the similarities are there: working-class girl flees her troubled home with a dream of dancing/modeling, finds herself pulled into the underbelly of the sex industry by nefarious characters, and scratches her way to the top, transforming herself into a version of the people who took advantage of her along the way. Except “About Cherry” takes place in San Francisco, not Las Vegas, and there’s no lap dance to completion, sadly.
“About Cherry” is the story of eighteen-year-old Angelina, whose mom (poor Lili Taylor, you’re not old enough to be playing drunk moms yet!) is an alcoholic and whose boyfriend (Jonny Weston) urges her to take nude photos because “It’s an awful lot of money for lying around in your underwear.” When he gets jealous of her chemistry with the photographer and she realizes she can make more money in San Francisco, she skips town with her hopelessly devoted best friend, Andrew, played by the always charming Dev Patel. While cocktailing in a strip club, she meets wealthy lawyer Francis (James Franco), and at the same time begins shooting with one of the largest porn studios in the city, where she works with director Margaret (Heather Graham). To assuage her anxieties over her first shoot, a solo masturbation scene, one of the girls tells her, “You’re working with Margaret? Lucky. She’s the best, you’re going to LOVE her.” That was the first time (of many) I exchanged glances with my friend, erupting in girlish giggles. I knew where that was going, and I liked it.
Are you squirming yet? I was. I was enjoying myself, but I was also sitting next to a pretty, platonic friend in a movie theater full of people I didn’t know. I suspect that Stephen Elliott, the film’s writer and director, wanted me to squirm. According to the film’s description, he is trying to “challenge assumptions about sexuality and pornography.” I’m not sure my assumptions about sexuality were challenged, but I did think about the line between what we consider artistic film and what we consider pornography. “About Cherry” is either a really well-written porno, or an okay and somewhat cheesy artistic film. Can it be both? Does it have to be either? Should its flaws be forgiven because it is trying to accomplish something no one has attempted before? Well, yes and no.
“About Cherry” is told in broad brushstrokes, almost like a comic book. Classic visuals are used to tell the story: Alcoholic mother hovering over the toilet while dutiful daughter holds back her hair, longing glance from the best friend who will do anything for her, easy smile of the rich guy as he sneaks her up onto a secret rooftop with perfect city views.
Although the narrative lacks originality, certain visuals stand out as unique. For example, Angelina only ever meets her best friend Andrew in his car. Neither character says out loud that he is picking her up from work and bringing her to her boyfriend’s house, illustrating Andrew’s devotion and Angelina’s poverty. Equally harrowing is the stepfather as a looming hulk of a man, who stiffens every neck in the house as he lumbers in and yells, “I work all day for this shit!” before grabbing a beer and slamming the refrigerator door. We never see his face, only his bulky arms and beer gut. This feels like a nod to all those niche fetishists watching, but it stops before getting too explicit. To actualize it any further might go too far in blurring the line between pornography and film. When “stepdad” stumbles in at night and hovers over the pullout couch where the sleeping daughters lie, we are left wondering what might have happened to the younger sister had Angelina been out that night, as she so often is. Thankfully, the film never revisits this.
The film’s lead is obviously a newcomer, and the film suffers for it. It was probably difficult to find an established actress who would do what is basically softcore porn for her first feature role, but Ashley Hinshaw’s performance doesn’t enhance the film’s minimal script. Many scenes feel semi-improvised, and Hinshaw is simply not smart enough to make up intelligent dialogue. One scene ends with her repeating the same line three times; in another scene she struggles to keep a cigarette lit and Dev Patel makes a joke about it. The attempt at naturalistic dialogue is valiant, but this film proves that mumblecore fails without smart actors.
Everything works out for Angelina in the end, though, because she falls in love with Heather Graham. She becomes a porn director, and plots to lure in young girls who are just like she was. And so the cycle continues. but not before Heather Graham’s stuffy old square of a girlfriend gets one last violent fuck on their kitchen floor while making a possessed demon face and breathing out of her nose really loudly. If I’m supposed to be grateful for this unconventional portrayal of lesbian sex, all I have to say is that Bette fucked Tina way harder at the end of Season One of “The L Word.”
All criticism aside, I enjoyed every minute of this film. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s mumblecore “Showgirls”! And Heather Graham really is quite good.