‘Girl Model’’ is a powerful documentary that, with a wider scope and a bit more shaping, could have been even more powerful, perhaps unbearably so. What’s there is strong enough.
The topic is the bottom levels of the international modeling business, with agencies and fashion magazines preying on the dreams of thousands of naïve teenage girls. When codirectors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin begin their film, we’re at a cattle call in Siberia, a harshly lighted ballroom filled with a docile mob of adolescents in bikinis. They look identical but we hear the scouts point out each girl’s flaws: too wide hips, too many pimples, needs to diet.
“Girl Model’’ settles in to follow one hopeful, Nadya Vall, on a dispiriting odyssey. She’s 13 but tall and lanky — think Mia Wasikowska’s little sister — and her parents see her beauty as their only way out of rural poverty. The scout for Russia’s Noah modeling agency, a former model named Ashley Arbaugh, sees Nadya as fodder for Japan’s borderline-pedophilic fashion industry. The girl is shipped off to Tokyo — by herself — with the promise of $8,000 in modeling contracts.
No one comes off looking good in “Girl Model.’’ Nadya’s parents pimp her out and plan an extension on their farmhouse. The head of Noah Models professes that he’s saving these girls “like Noah saved the animals.’’ The owner of the Japanese agency is a hipster creep who may be a sexual predator. As for Nadya, her only crime is that she’s 13. We watch with appalled sympathy as she finds herself marooned in a cell-like Tokyo apartment with another teenager, neither of them able to speak Japanese or English, waiting for work that never comes. Almost all of the girls go home thousands of dollars in debt while their photos appear in magazine ads for which they’re never paid.
The directors present all of this with an uninflected verite style that urges us to make our own conclusions. There’s no voice-over and only a few explanatory titles; like Nadya, we’re meant to fend for ourselves. It’s a valid approach that doesn’t yield as many dividends as the filmmakers hope. You sense there are dots left unconnected, a larger picture we’re not seeing. Are the various agency heads exploiting the models on their own, or is there malevolent collusion? Who’s making money and how? “Girl Model’’ shows but doesn’t investigate.
By far the most distressing figure in the film is Arbaugh, a grown-up lost girl for whom it’s impossible to feel respect. She professes to have hated being a model — we see old video footage of her waxing pretentiously miserable in her youth — and is perfectly aware she’s selling her young charges into a system that will use and discard them. Arbaugh knows her industry is morally bankrupt, that she’s in the lucrative business of child abuse. But she can’t bring herself to say it, and her self-loathing is complete.
When she’s not on the road, Arbaugh lives in a sterile Connecticut mansion with only two plastic baby dolls for companionship. Even as it falls short, “Girl Model’’ is essential viewing for adolescent girls who flip through fashion magazines or obsess over “Top Model’’ without thinking about why. It’s a movie that says those who want to be like Ashley may end up like Ashley.