“This isn’t the story of porn,” said Stephen Elliott after a press screening of his movie Cherry. “It’s meant to show that people [in porn] have many stories. This is one of them.”
Cherry features Ashley Hinshaw, James Franco, Dev Patel, Lili Taylor and Heather Graham in a young girl’s coming-of-age story that asks, “Can sex work ever be a happy ending?”
When the film was presented at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, it was featured on Western Europe’s largest movie screen during a prestigious week-long event that attracted more than 300,000 industry professionals. When it recently screened in New York, it was before a roomful of critics in the East Village.
I was eager to see the film and meet Stephen Elliott. I’m a huge fan of his work-including seven books; his critically acclaimed memoir, The Adderall Diaries; his literary online magazine; and the “overly personal” Daily Rumpus e-mails he sends to subscribers each day. As an author, Elliott is as masterful, thrilling and provocative as critics say. I wondered if his mastery over the page would translate to film as I stepped into a dark screening room.
Cherry is streamlined and linear. It’s a character study where the story, like the camera, lingers on the protagonist, Angelina, to reveal her beauty, vulnerability and the complex motivations that drive her to make choices. When Angelina discovers the ease with which she can earn money “just for lying around in [her] underwear,” she finds a way to escape her abusive home. She and her best friend head to San Francisco, rent a room in an apartment and quickly find work-he in a bookstore, she as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. Soon her curiosity is piqued, and she starts looking into San Francisco’s porn scene. There she finds acceptance, employment and much more. No tragic ending. No regrets. Elliott and his co-writer, Lorelei Lee-an actress in adult films who has also been featured in documentaries about the industry-present a matter-of-fact look at a business that is usually condemned.
Characters in movies about pornography almost always end up the same way-dead, addicted or ruined. Cherry’s lead grows and profits from her experiences in the industry and even gets her happily ever after. The film surprises the audience by taking a unique approach to an oft-told story; it skips the melodrama to avoid what Elliott refers to as “movie trope.”
“I’ve wanted to write something about Kink.com forever,” Elliott explained after the movie credits rolled. He described the castle-like, 250,000 square-foot San Francisco Armory where Cherry was filmed, and where Kink.com operates as a business setting like any other-where people “just work and have lives.” Elliott wrote the story as a screenplay, along with Lee, a graduate of San Francisco State University and New York University, during the three weeks he waited to find out if James Franco would option the upcoming film version of his memoir. (Franco will, in fact, star in and direct The Adderall Diaries.)
The result is a movie that tells a story at an easy-going pace without trying to force a point of view. It won’t be described as “a movie that makes audiences think,” because it simply assumes viewers are bringing their own intelligence and interpretation to everything on screen. When Angelina leaves home, there is no explosive scene with her alcoholic mother. Lili Taylor’s bitter, off-kilter behaviour communicates her potential for menace as effectively as any scream fest could. When Angelina appears for an interview at Kink and introduces herself as Cherry for the first time, the audience can imagine the inner dialogues and outer efforts that led her there. The movie moves forward dreamily, from one pivotal moment to the next, as if it’s a life remembered. When the film abruptly ends, the effect is jolting.
Cherry is a bit languid when James Franco is on screen. The compelling Franco of Milk and 127 Hours is missing from the film. In his place is an actor delivering a groggy performance. Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel also gives a reserved performance, but he has a powerful, emotional showdown toward the end of the movie that explains his behaviour throughout.
The visual appeal of the movie is undeniable. The cinematography does the cast justice. Hinshaw and Graham are golden and gorgeous in every frame-it’s no wonder the camera is in no rush to move to the next scene when Angelina is posing nude during her first photo shoot or when Graham as Margret directs her in a sex scene for the first time.
For fans of The Rumpus, Cherry offers great fun. A chuckle of recognition runs through the crowd when the site’s editor-in-chief appears at a dance club and later in the film walking down a hall at the Armory. The theme song from The Rumpus podcast plays in the background as Angelina prepares to leave home for San Francisco. Managing editor and bearded bad boy of The Rumpus, Isaac Fitzgerald, appears in one scene as a cameraman sporting a tattoo he shares with Stephen Elliott.
A Japanese print links several scenes to the end of the movie, when a Japanese parasol appears in the background. The meaning, like much else in Cherry, is up to your own interpretation. What’s next for the movie? Film festival dates are hush-hush for now, but hopefully Cherry will arrive very soon at a screen near you.