Unlike most films which delve into pornography, About Cherry takes the somewhat risky tactic of having its heroine not be destroyed by her involvement in the world of adult films. In fact, she appears to be a rather grounded young woman who knows she can never make this kind of money doing anything else. She even kind of seems to enjoy doing the job – shocker! Sure, she knows it can’t be forever and she would like to move on to something more permanent and reliable. However, About Cherry is fascinating if for no other reason than the fact that its main character does not become a drug-addicted, emotionally-scarred zombie. She even finds love and a new career all because of her dalliance with the adult film industry.
About Cherry is trying to be the next natural step forward from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, an epic ensemble look at the early days of the adult film industry. However, even in that film, for as even-handed as it was to the world of pornography, the main characters mostly paid for their roles in the scene – remember Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) crying alone for the child she could never know or an exhausted, drug-addled Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) numbly staring at his naked self in the dressing room mirror as he waited for a shot.
This kind of soul-searching seems to mostly come to the outsiders in the world of About Cherry, the smug alcoholic rich architect (James Franco) who tries to romance Cherry (Ashley Hinshaw), an angry lesbian wife (Diane Farr) and Cherry’s deadbeat mother (Lili Taylor). While she is not exactly proud of what she does, Cherry herself only seems to be really disturbed by her career once in the course of the film, when she catches her platonic friend and roommate (Dev Patel) – or at least she considers it platonic – masturbating to one of her films.
That is not to say that About Cherry is as good or finely nuanced a film as Boogie Nights, it certainly isn’t, but there is a kinship to the two films. In fact that film’s Heather Graham is in this film as well, as Margaret, a slightly aging former adult film star who had segued behind the camera. Margaret could easily be a slightly older, much more stable version of Graham’s Boogie Nights character Rollergirl.
So, About Cherry can be thanked for taking a different look at the world of adult entertainment. However, sadly, it never quite attains the insider drama for which it strives. Instead, it somewhat often stumbles into melodrama, to the point that even when there is a shocking moment of insight into the world it is portraying – for example a violently sexual break-up fight between Margaret and her lesbian lover – the film feels like it is somewhat wallowing in the rough sex rather than exploring the causes.
The film is trying to have it both ways (I will refrain from using any clichés that end with “and eat it, too.”). It wants to be an insider’s view into a world most of us will never inhabit, but at the same time it can’t help but exploit the soft-core potential inherent in hardcore films.
Does it want to comment on the lifestyle or just exploit it? Co-writer/director Stephen Elliott can’t seem to decide and it eventually becomes a little bit of an awkward mix. When About Cherry is on point, it appears to be an interesting expose of the industry. When it strays, About Cherry feels a bit like a late-night Cinemax feature. (Which, in itself is not necessarily bad for what it is, it just has a very different thrust and purpose as a film.)
Still, in all, About Cherry is an interesting look at a small-town girl who drifts into pornography in a new generation in which the internet and sexting has made nudity a much more comfortable state. Newcomer Hinshaw is likable and relatable in the title role, a woman who was not a “slut” but was still comfortable enough with her sexuality to be filmed naked. Graham is also quite brave and solid as the older woman who is helping her come to terms with the world. (The aforementioned break-up scene between Graham and Farr is particularly bold for its troubling mix of sex and violence. Both actresses deserve credit for baring themselves physically and emotionally like they did, even though the scene was filmed mostly in long-shot to keep it less explicit.) That said, the subplots with Franco and Taylor could have been easily dropped without anyone missing them.
Will About Cherry be a game-changer in the modern movie world like its inspiration Boogie Nights became? I sincerely doubt it. However, it does have enough intriguing insights into the world of pornography to make it worth a look.
Jay S. Jacobs