Most model documentaries, even ones that intend to show the dark side of a harsh industry (Sara Ziff’s Picture Me, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s About Face), temper depressing scenes with glamorous clips of thudding runway music and pretty outfits. But Girl Model, a new documentary by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, does no such thing. One suspects this isn’t because the filmmakers tried to make a downer of a movie, but because there simply weren’t any glamorous moments to splice in.
The movie begins in Siberia — the remote, snowy northern region of Russia — in a room packed with girls wearing high heels and bikinis. Most of them are slender and beautiful, with slim hips and long silky hair, and all of them are incredibly young. A model scout named Ashley surveys them one by one, usually dismissing them with an almost imperceptible shake of her head. Her visit isn’t entirely fruitless, though — she does find Anya, a heartbreakingly beautiful 13-year-old who bears an ironic resemblance to a younger Gemma Ward, the model who was cast out of the industry when she put on weight in 2009.
Ashley’s job is to scout models for a Tokyo-based agency called Switch. Speaking in a quiet, detached, almost mournful voice, she explains that the Japanese market likes “cute, young girls … young is very important.” We see them considering girls as young as 12. In fact, many of today’s top models — like Coco Rocha, for example — started out doing catalogue and advertising work in Asia during their very early teens and graduated to runway work in the U.S. and Europe when they got older.
Ashley returns home to Tokyo with Anya and another discovery, 16-year-old Madlen, who seems doomed from the start when Ashley notes that she “looks 25 already.” Upon measuring the size of her hips, another agent says reassuringly, “We’ll put you on a diet.” Madlen is eventually sent home after she gains two centimeters around her waist; she is $2,200 in debt to Switch.
Ashley, who is very pretty in a delicate, fragile way, used to be a model, too. We see her in 1999 in Japan, at age 18, filming herself in the mirror and talking to the camera. She seems different in those homemade videos — glowing, spunkier, more animated — than she is now. She never made it big as a model, but she continued working in the industry, buying her first house with her earnings when she was 23. She now lives in a glass house (literally) in Connecticut and wants to have children so badly that she has two anatomically correct baby dolls in her house, a boy and a girl. It’s unclear if she’s in a relationship, but she doesn’t wear a wedding ring.
Anya gets shot by several photographers in Tokyo but receives no payment. “I don’t know where my photographs go,” she says. There’s a brief moment of triumph when she finds one of her pictures in a magazine, which is quickly negated when she has to dig out the coins to buy the issue herself. She is terribly homesick and eventually gets sent home owing $2,000 to Switch for her expenses. She says she’ll continue trying to model in hopes that she can pay off her debts.
Things aren’t so great for Ashley, either: Toward the end of the film, she has an operation to remove two fibroids from her uterus. One of them was “the size of a baby’s head,” she explains, and contained a huge mass of blond hair. To her relief, the doctor tells her that she’ll be able to get pregnant in three months.
It seems symbolic, considering Ashley’s baby fever, Anya returns home to find that the family cat has had kittens. They’re so tiny, like little blond mice, that their eyelids are still squeezed tightly shut. We see Anya’s father, his eyes wide and sky-blue like his daughter’s, watching her play with them.
Make no mistake: This movie is a downer. But it’s also fascinating, and Anya genuinely has the striking, ethereal features of a major model. On the one hand, you want her to run like hell away from Ashley and anyone involved in the modeling industry; on the other, you think she could really be successful if she stuck with it. Perhaps this movie will help. Meanwhile, it makes you grateful for the higher standards set by the American modeling industry, however flawed they still may be.
Girl Model opens today in select theaters; for more information, see here.