Review: ‘About Cherry’ Ultimately isn’t About Much
The new IFC Films release About Cherry, is a mainstream cinema approach to providing a window into that underbelly world of cinema, pornography. Written by Lorelei Lee and Stephen Elliott and directed by Elliot (themselves former adult performers), the film strives to provide an insightful and unique look into the mechanics of the adult film industry, but its failure on several basic levels prevents it from having any real depth or meaning.
The film follows Angelina (a promising Ashley Hinshaw), a high school dropout without much of a home life. After taking some topless photos at the behest of her sleazy boyfriend, she and her best friend Andrew (a waste of Dev Patel) run away to San Francisco. Angelina lands a job serving drinks at a strip club where a desire to earn more money leads her to the adult film world. One of the film’s strengths is that Angelina takes all of this in relative stride. Whereas a heavy handed Hollywood film might be tempted to play up Angelina’s bad luck and hard life to justify her choices, this film boldly opts to treat the sex industry as just that – a workplace providing jobs and a paycheck to those who are interested. No justification needed, and no judgment passed. Angelina isn’t desperate and out of options, she’s just trying to get ahead and these are the options that happen to be available to her.
It’s after she agrees to first perform on camera (about halfway in) that the film starts to go off the rails. On the set of her first scene, Angelina catches the eye of the female director, Margaret (played by the always deer-in-headlights Heather Graham). Margaret, a former performer, becomes smitten with Angelina and it leads to the dissolution of Margaret’s nearly decade-long relationship with her girlfriend Jillian (a usually reliable, but not this time, Diane Farr). The film takes a sudden shift and starts treating Margaret as the main character. We find ourselves spending more time on Margaret and Jillian’s relationship than the budding relationship of the main character we’ve already been asked to invest ourselves in – throughout the Margaret detour, Angelina (who now has the stage name Cherry) has started seeing a wealthy socialite lawyer (played by the appropriately creepy James Franco) whom she met while working at the strip club. When that relationship reaches its dramatic peak, it’s hard to care because we haven’t spent enough time with them to really feel like they were ever a real couple.
That leads to what is About Cherry’s ultimate failure: a lack of focus and clear intention. There are two different and equally interesting story ideas at work here: one is a young girl’s introduction into the adult film world (Angelina/Cherry) and how this will shape her, and the other is the story of the industry veteran (Margaret) and the toll the business has taken; what becomes of a life after porn. In theory these two stories should mesh – Margaret is clearly meant to be the mirror image of Angelina’s future. If Margaret had been introduced earlier on, there would have been room to treat her story as a complementary subplot. But by the time Margaret’s character is introduced, it’s too late in the film to spend time developing her character. The filmmakers insist on doing it anyway and the two plots find themselves competing against each other and both get shortchanged.
The film is not without its merits – Ashley Hinshaw turns in a solid performance and does an excellent job of communicating the awkwardness that must surely come with entering the world of adult entertainment, without ever coming across as vulnerable or naïve. The handheld cinematography, while clichéd, takes on a form of voyeurism which at least makes some sense in a film about a voyeuristic industry. The filmmakers treat the delicate subject matter with an everyday actuality that is refreshing. Whether it is meant to soften adult film’s image or promote it as a legitimate enterprise is unclear. And that’s the most frustrating aspect of the film – it has such potential, and you know there’s a good movie in there somewhere. But the film is never able to clearly articulate its point of view, what it’s trying to say – so it ends up not saying anything.