A vivid and surprisingly emotive exploration of fashion modeling and the refracted reality and cost of the economic opportunities it presents for prepubescent Eastern European girls in particular, the spare but rather superb documentary Girl Model walks a tight-rope adjacent to exploitation, peering down into its caverns, and asking uneasy questions about whether the alternatives for so many young girls are really that much better.
Narrowly focused in savvy fashion, Girl Model interweaves the stories of two subjects who only briefly cross paths. There's Ashley Arbaugh, an early-30s ex-model turned scout who scours rural Russian open casting calls looking for fresh faces, and one of her discoveries — Nadya Vall (above), a skinny, 13-year-old from a small Siberian town who describes herself as a "gray mouse," and simple country girl.
Ashley specializes in finding models for the Japanese market ("not too tall, and young is important"), so after she taps Nadya and sends off some snapshots of her for her bosses' approval, the young girl prepares for a trip alone to Tokyo, where a strict contract that limits her body measurements is supposed to guarantee her at least two jobs and $8,000. Speaking of course no Japanese and only a little English, Nadya (who wears a Teletubbies T-shirt to a going-away party thrown by her parents) is shy and naïve and homesick — all the things one expects of a provincial child. As her optimism about being able to rescue her family from their economic hardship begins to flicker and fade, Nadya's dreams are contrasted with Ashley's deep-seated ambivalence about the industry.
Directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin occasionally intercede on Nadya's behalf (helping bridge a language divide in brokering a ticket adjustment, and at one point loaning her a cell phone to call home), but they mostly just observe. The film eschews traditional sit-down interviews, which likely wouldn't have been as effective with Nadya anyway. Ashley, meanwhile, is guileless, and her complicated relationship with the fashion industry — something stirringly communicated through the use of self-shot video from her own heyday, in the late 1990s — gives Girl Model both a charged, unsettled quality and a deep vulnerability that runs parallel to Nadya's story.
The cumulative effect of this masterful interweaving is a sparse, streamlined movie that is expressive without being heavy-handed. Girl Model is a film that comes to its provocation honestly and intellectually, without showiness or false pretense. There's a surprising sense of tension that bubbles to the surface, over Nadya's failure to book jobs and rising debt, and Ashley's intimations and speculation about the slippery slope between underage modeling and prostitution.
Perhaps darkest of all, however, Girl Model doesn't preach or offer up easy advocacy. One of the Russian talent brokers talks somewhat creepily about the importance of finding girls when they are extremely young, but later shares with Ashley how he endeavors to scare girls straight and set them on a path of financial security. He seems sincere, making the viewer ask tough questions about what constitutes smart and safe choices for those with frequently so little other opportunity for socioeconomic advancement. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (First Run Features/Carnivalesque Films, unrated, 77 minutes)