American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"About Cherry" (102 minutes) is available now on demand at IFC, iTunes, Amazon Instant and SundanceNow. Opens theatrically September 21, 2012 in New York.
After reading the synopsis for "About Cherry," I figured I had it pegged. Here's a movie about a fresh-faced, clean-cut American girl named Angelina who goes the photographic Full Monty before graduating to porn. "Oh brother," I thought. "Another cautionary tale." In American cinema, you just can't enjoy sex. There has to be some consequence for all the ejaculations of "oh god!" and "yes I said yes I will Yes." If you're a man, you tend to get off scot free. But a woman who enjoys the same activity might as well be struck by lightning onscreen. So I expected poor Angelina to run afoul of drugs, sexual abuse and possibly fatal violence. The press materials seemed to support my supposition: "But Angelina's newfound ideal lifestyle soon comes apart at the seams," it ominously states. I braced myself for the worst.
Eighteen-year old Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) lives in Southern California with her younger sister (Maya Raines), her alcoholic mother (Lili Taylor) and Mama's latest man. Angelina yearns to escape her dismal home life, so with a little coaxing from her rock band boyfriend (Johnny Weston), she visits his photographer buddy Vaughn (Ernest Waddell). Vaughn shoots erotic photos, and Angelina is both erotic and photogenic. The photo shoot is such a rousing success that Weston demands Angelina avoid Vaughn for future shoots. Angelina dumps the rocker.
With enough money to blow Long Beach for good, Angelina leaves home without telling her mother. Tagging along is Andrew ("Slumdog Millionaire" Dev Patel), her BFF whom she treats like a puppy. She pats him on the head repeatedly throughout "About Cherry," and he follows her around as if she were made of Kibbles 'n Bits. I assumed Andrew was gay, since the two share a bed and when they move into the home of a gay man named Paco (Vincent Palo), they both mention they are not a couple. Angelina does things no woman would do to a straight man she had no intention of screwing, like putting her head in his lap and undressing in front of him. Andrew allows this to happen without much reaction. When Paco takes Andrew to a gay nightclub in the Castro District (the film was shot in San Francisco), and Andrew has a great time, I ignored the sloppy mixed signals I was being sent by the screenplay and placed Andrew on the same team.
At the same time Andrew and Paco are trying to catch a cab in front of the Castro's Twin Peaks bar (no easy task), Angelina is serving drinks at a strip club. She meets Francis (James Franco), an arrogant lawyer whose buddy gets bounced for getting too familiar with the entertainment. Francis gives her a huge tip, but her co-worker gives her an even bigger one: If she's OK with taking nudie pics, she should try a place specializing in fetish porn. "They pay $800," says the co-worker. Angelina christens herself Cherry and gives the place a call.
When Cherry pops in for an interview, Jake (Megan Boone) throws a fascinating series of questions at her. This interview sequence feels realistic, as do the scenes inside the warehouse where the films are made. There's genuine cinematic heat and titillation when adult film director Margaret (Heather Graham, Rollergirl in "Boogie Nights") navigates Cherry through her first shoot, but the process seems authentic. I've no reason to doubt the filmmakers' expertise here: "About Cherry" is written by two people with insider knowledge of the industry, Stephen Elliott and Lorelei Lee (whose name should be familiar to fans of both Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing). Director Elliott seems most at home at Cherry's new job; these scenes are the best in the film. When the film leaves the warehouse, it gets into plenty of narrative trouble.
I appreciated that "About Cherry" wasn't the tale of woe I expected. Elliott and Lee want to show that a person can lead a normal life as an adult film actor, and can even climb the ranks to a behind the camera job. And the characters enjoy sex without karmic repercussion. Unfortunately, this plot is accomplished by stacking the narrative deck to sometimes absurd proportion, resulting in the same type of one-sided argument as the standard cautionary tale. (Spoilers Ahead.) When Angelina's mother finds out what she does, she rails against it. "But," the film basically says "she's an unreliable alcoholic!" After Angelina starts dating the coked-out Francis, he too turns on her, calling her job "disgusting" before damn near killing them both in a drug-fueled car accident.
The worst narrative offenses are reserved for Andrew and Jillian, Margaret's lover of 8 years. Jillian senses (correctly) the sexual tension between Margaret and Angelica. Her relationship with Margaret could have been a valuable subplot about the difficulties of dating someone outside of the porn business. Instead, Jillian is reduced to an angry harpy whose inability to accept Margaret's job or her co-workers would never have translated into 8 years together. After a bout of angry sex, Jillian disappears from the movie forever, giving Margaret an almost clear path to pick Cherry as her new lover.
"About Cherry" kicks away the last obstacle in that path by disposing of Andrew in a manner that's borderline offensive. It turns out that Andrew is not only straight, but after months of spooning with the girl he's in love with, he also must have the will power of a saint. At least, that is, until he subscribes to Cherry's porn channel. When Angelina catches Andrew unwrapping his cherry bomb while watching her, she freaks out. I thought "Here's a brown person who, for the entire film thus far, has been neutered like a 1950's movie Negro while this pretty blonde pets his head like a dog and puts her head in his crotch. When he turns out to be straight and horny, the movie slaps his hand?!!" The writers must have read my mind, because Andrew pretty much said what I was thinking. Angelina responds "You love me, just not enough to jerk off to somebody else!!!" Um, WHY THE HELL would he use somebody else's naked ass, lady?
With two topic experts behind the camera, one would hope for a more penetrating look at the subject matter. Instead, despite the actors' sometimes valiant attempts, I learned very little about Cherry or her profession. Though "About Cherry" takes the road less travelled for films of this ilk, it uses the same clichéd blueprint with which the more travelled road was built.
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