“I feel like her hips are too big,” says Ashley, a former model-turned-scout seeking new talent for the Japanese market. The casual judgments of Ashley and her fellow scouts are devastating in their nonchalance. (“What’s the size of your hips? … We’ll put you on a diet.” “Pimple problems. You have to treat it.”) The comments are uttered so matter-of-factly that I occasionally wondered if I’d misheard Ashley or misread a subtitle. This, perhaps, is one of Redmon and Sabin’s goals: To cut through the BS-PR-speak that accompanies the fashion world and zero in on its dark, cutting reality. Sometimes, it’s a bit obvious; at the opening scouting call, a PA announcer’s booming voice rattles off the supposed life lessons from modeling for the girls and their parents before proclaiming, “Who wouldn’t want their children to possess these qualities?” as a tiny waist is measured. The announcer adds, ominously, “If you haven’t decided what your child should’ve been doing yet, then perhaps you can offer them a modeling career.”
Ashley, the scout, works for a Russian named Tigran, a businessman with contacts across the country. He and Ashley are the gateway to modeling work in Japan, and in his eyes, he is offering something important -- a way out. “The only thing I wish for her...is independence. I’m trying to save these young girls. That’s what I’m doing.” For better or worse, that’s what going to Japan offers them, and morality notwithstanding, it’s left to the viewer to determine if that trade-off is worth it. As Nadya leaves the family home to fly overseas, Ashley travels by train to the next stop on her scouting mission. “The industry changes minute by minute, and it’s based on nothing,” she says, before a jarring jump-cut to herself at 18 -- modeling in Japan.
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin directed, produced, edited, and photographed five previous documentaries, but “Girl Model” should be their most widely seen yet. In fact, it deserves to be shown to teenagers, not necessarily as a warning, but at least as an eye-opener: This is how it works, kids. And it ain’t pretty. And if “Girl Model” doesn't necessarily break new ground, it does confirm the suspicions many of us have about the industry. As such, the film’s ending seems inevitable and bleak. In fact, our slight sigh of relief over Nadya’s fate is undercut with a final update that makes us shake our heads, and then wonder what we would do in her small shoes. Nadya is a girl, but as “Girl Model” demonstrates with grim clarity, she has entered the world of adults, and there’s no going back. [A-]