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Berlinale 2012 Review: Try As it Might, 'Cherry' Fails To Convince Us That A Career In Porn Is The Best Idea Ever

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 16, 2012 at 3:32PM

That the film is co-written from the sympathetic point of view of porn actress Lorelei Lee (who also takes a small cameo role) couldn’t be clearer in co-writer/director Stephen Elliott’s debut feature “Cherry.” Ostensibly a fairly familiar tale of a good girl getting slowly pulled into the seamy world of pornography, its unusual tack (that this is, in fact, a good thing) may sound intriguing but it gets wearing pronto; some decent performances cannot clear the air of the musky odor of porn apologism. The industry depicted here is one of clean surfaces, make up room camaraderie, and a startling lack of seediness, and Cherry/Angelina’s choice to join it is presented as an empowered, sensible decision.
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Cherry, James Franco, Heather Graham, Lily Taylor
This review contains spoilers. Mainly that the movie is not very good.

That the film is co-written from the sympathetic point of view of porn actress Lorelei Lee (who also takes a small cameo role) couldn’t be clearer in co-writer/director Stephen Elliott’s debut feature “Cherry.” Ostensibly a fairly familiar tale of a good girl getting slowly pulled into the seamy world of pornography, its unusual tack (that this is, in fact, a good thing) may sound intriguing but it gets wearing pronto; some decent performances cannot clear the air of the musky odor of porn apologism. The industry depicted here is one of clean surfaces, make up room camaraderie, and a startling lack of seediness, and Cherry/Angelina’s choice to join it is presented as an empowered, sensible decision. And in the world of the film, it probably is, as by its close, it emerges that the only people she can truly rely on, the only ones who offer non-judgmental, undemanding warmth and love, are those connected to the industry in one capacity or another. Everyone else, her mother (Lili Taylor), boyfriend #1 (Jonny Weston), boyfriend #2 (James Franco) and her best friend (Dev Patel) let her down, selfishly falling prey to their weaknesses: alcohol, money, drugs and being unrequitedly in love with her, respectively. In presenting the porn industry, without shading, as a refuge from addiction and exploitation and a career choice with great opportunities for upward mobility, at some point the film leaves the realm of believable narrative and enters that of propaganda (pornaganda?)

Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) is an extremely pretty, sexually active high-schooler (of legal age) with an alcoholic mother and a stepfather figure who, it is hinted, is on the cusp of becoming sexually abusive toward her or her younger sister, if he’s not already there. She is also, it should be noted, incredibly good – sweet, kind, caring. Her guitar-playing boyfriend suggests she make a little more money than she earns at her laundromat job by posing for naked pictures. And in the first of the film’s displays of Angelina’s strangely contradictory attitude, she is angered and hurt by the objectification inherent in his suggestion, but then goes and does it anyway, showing a surprising hardheadedness about payment in the process. Seemingly prompted by a threatening incident involving her mom’s boyfriend, Angelina runs away to San Francisco with her best friend where they sleep non-sexually together on a double bed in a flatshare and find jobs.

We are meant to like Angelina absolutely, and Hinshaw is certainly very, um, pretty? in the role, but unearned affinity can only stretch so far, and when the film misses a link or two in the chain of plausibility, we have to begin to notice that not all of Angelina’s choices are as simple as the film wants them to seem – at least not if she is the sweet, trusting ingénue we’re being sold on. So her jump from cocktail waitress to porn actress is presented as a seamless progression, one that we are expected to see as a logical next step. But for a girl whose only prior brush with the sex industry was taking a few cheesecake topless photos, seeing her only slightly blushingly discuss whether she’d be a top or a bottom in fetish play and then masturbate in a schoolgirl outfit on camera is a leap too far, too soon. The problem is the film wants it both ways – we are supposed to identify with her and root for her, but early on she starts making decisions that in the same position, we simply would not make. If it was honestly and firmly established at the outset that Angelina likes the idea of working in porn, and is pursuing that ambition, then, fine. As it is, we are somehow asked to believe she is an innocent, being, however gently, corralled into the decision by circumstance, as though the filmmakers believe she might lose our sympathy if she initially seems too into it. It's not her fault, the film seems to suggest paradoxically, but it is her choice.

Once involved in porn proper, she catches the eye of her first director (Heather Graham, playing the porn-is-good! alternate-universe take on her Rollergirl character from “Boogie Nights,” plus twenty years), who is herself involved in a long-standing lesbian relationship with a high-powered investment firm executive (Diane Farr). And here too, those outside the industry are given a raw deal: after a presumably loving 8-year relationship, Farr’s character’s entirely relevant questions (that spring from her accurate intuition that Graham is falling for the teenaged Hinshaw) are invalidated by a scene of ugly sexual power play between the two, which effectively ends their relationship. Somehow because of this event, Graham regains the moral high ground, is conveniently freed up and can avoid answering those tricky questions about the potential exploitation of a very young girl. Similarly Angelina's priveleged lawyer boyfriend (who has thwarted artistic ambitions that Angelina tries to nurture -- no, really) turns out to be a high-functioning junkie, and at a point of confrontation, verbally abuses her into a tearful state and, in a pointless story beat, crashes the car. And so again, a porn worker is let off the hook of answering really quite valid questions by the questioner doing something calculated to lose our sympathy. This distraction tactic is sleight of hand, nothing more, an "oh look, an eagle!" approach to deflect challenges the film would rather not address.

It is difficult to critique this film without coming off as a prude whose ingrained sexual conservatism will simply reject any positive portrayal of the sex industry. But, not to be crude about it, there is a difference between having no hang ups about your sexuality and getting fucked on camera for money. But it’s a distinction the film glosses over time and again. Angelina progresses from masturbation and girl-on-girl scenarios to full onscreen hetero penetrative sex, for no better reason than she "hasn't tried it before" and "it's my job," reacting with incomprehension when this decision proves hurtful to those around her. But the last word in Angelina's self-centredness (a trait the film would have us believe she is incapable of) comes in her treatment of her devotedly loyal best friend. Having, as he so accurately points out, treated him like a pet for the majority of their relationship, it's clear we're supposed to share her outrage and sense of betrayal when she finds him beating off to one of her pornos. But her own attitude to her job is so contradictory that it's difficult to know whose "betrayal" is deeper, though she, as always, gets the last word. In this case it's "Do you love me? Do you? Not enough to watch somebody else!" Hah! Ba-zing! Wait, what?

The cast works hard at being winning in often unsympathetic roles. But the story's flaws run so deep and the writing is so pedestrian that it's really difficult to find much to cheer about. "Cherry" tries hard to provoke us into reassessing the porn industry, but is so hamfisted that the result is not a look on the bright side, but a whitewash. [C-]

This article is related to: About Cherry, Review, Berlin International Film Festival


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