Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Three women, three ages, three cities. Winnie, 12, is a young New York City actress, gymnast, writer, and activist, funny and bright and already possessing a remarkable sense of self. Laura, 22, is a kindergarten teacher and amateur model from North Carolina, and although she's a stunner, she's decided that she badly needs expensive labial reconstruction surgery. Nichole, 32, is an exotic dancer and former adult film star; though she's out of the movies, she and her husband manage other dancers and she gives pole-dancing lessons to local professionals in her Florida home.
This intriguing cross-section of women and points of view provides the framework for Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus's documentary Sexy Baby, which takes a tough, challenging, honest look at the ever-popular subject of sexuality in media--but with an eye specifically on this uniquely tech-influenced moment, where Facebook, texting (and "sexting") and easy access to porn are changing the game faster than most folks can keep up.
The primary focus of the film is young Winnie, and no wonder: she ages from 12 to 14 in the course of the film, going from a little girl to a young woman, and the filmmakers rivetingly capture that changeover--with all of its trials, tribulations, and Facebook account suspensions. At the beginning of the film, she's uncommonly attuned to feminist ideas; we see a scene from her acting troupe where she asks why more girls her age know Paris and Lindsay than Susan B. Anthony and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But as she begins to develop crushes, hang out with new friends, and grow into her own skin, her ideas about herself get more complicated, and the conflicts with her caring and protective parents get more fierce. It helps that she's so perceptive, particularly to matters of Internet identity and self-actualization, but it's painful and familiar all the same.
Nichole provides a very different perspective, understanding how porn has changed mainstream sexuality--particularly with regards to ideas of objectification and submission--while taking pains to note that the sex in adult films is an act ("sport-fucking," she calls it), and to point out the differences between real sex and porn sex. The stuff they do, for example, is less about what feels good than what looks good. Also, never forget that they're all getting paid to do it.
The filmmakers seem to know that Laura is the least interesting of the three women, and she is accorded far less screen time than the others. But her story is a strange one: why would someone this pretty spend this much money on something that only (presumably) a few other people will ever see? Bauer and Gradus take pains not to pin blame, but porn comes into play here too; it sounds insane, but yes, the easy access to giant close-ups of female genitalia has, it seemed, led to some real issues with the health of labia image. No, seriously.
It should be stressed, particularly to skeptical male viewers, that the filmmakers are not pointing fingers, or providing easy but implausible answers like getting rid of pornography or music videos. This is heavy stuff: the effect of pop culture imagery, the slippery slope of sexual empowerment, the duality of sexual identity. What they do, which is so tricky, is to raise the questions, pose the problems, and genuinely delve into these issues--but they do so in a way that's neither preachy nor didactic, and that finds genuine drama within these three women's stories. Winnie's fights with her parents, Nichole's relationship with her husband, Laura's tender dynamic with her mom: these elements, which are shot and presented in a style reminiscent of reality TV, create both dramatic tension and momentum, which is a pretty smooth way of keeping the picture from turning into a polemic.
The filmmaking is so savvy, in fact, that the statistics which show up over the end credits seem rather unnecessary (to say nothing of the now-clichéd instructions to visit the film's website and "continue the conversation"). These points have been made within the film itself, more subtly and far more effectively. That minor complaint aside, Sexy Baby is top-notch documentary filmmaking: thought-provoking, difficult, and ultimately rewarding.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.