Most of us think we know a thing or two about the modeling business, regardless of whether our first thoughts are of bulimia or Bulgari. Girl Model cuts through one's preconceptions of the industry by following a painfully young Russian girl and the talent scout who finds her, documenting one round in an endless dance of seduction, betrayal, and emotional and financial abuse.
Filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin begin with the depressing Siberian cattle call where 13-year-old Nadya is "discovered." She's then crowned with a cheap tiara in an even more depressing ceremony, which fetes her as the "winner" of a modeling contract. She's going to Japan, where they like their girls young (the film is nicely acerbic about our conflation of youth and beauty), and is promised thousands of dollars in income. Nadya's apparently loving family hates to let her go, but they need the cash to finish the modest house they've been building a little at a time, whenever they can scrape together a few extra rubles to do so.
Nadya, as she tells the camera, is "a gray mouse—an ordinary country girl." A pretty but diffident girl with wide-set, wide-open blue eyes, her innate dignity and self-possession makes her seem a little older than her years, but she looks alarmingly vulnerable as she heads to the plane—the first she's ever been on—that will fly her to Tokyo, and even more so when she lands to find nobody there to meet her, expected to find her way to the agency in an enormous city whose language she doesn't speak. It's a rude entry, and a good indication of just how little the people now in charge of her destiny care about her emotional or physical well-being.
Meanwhile, the shifty-eyed thirtysomething scout, Ashley, slowly comes into focus, thanks in part to well-chosen excerpts from a video diary she kept during her own modeling years, including a stint of her own in Japan. Ashley talks self-pityingly about her hatred of modeling and her chagrin at being stuck in this industry, as though she had no choice but to exploit other girls the way she was exploited herself—or worse, since she at least made enough to buy a shelter magazine-ready glass house in Los Angeles. In contrast, the most flagrant abuse Ashley's prospects experience is financial: One after another goes home with none of the cash they were promised, loaded down with $2,000 of additional debt the agency claims they're owed.
We don't see any sexual exploitation, though Ashley delivers one of her dark, self-dramatizing monologues about how easily the thin line between selling sexy pictures and selling physical access to those same bodies can be broached, by broke beauties or the parasites who profit from them. But the filmmakers' seemingly omnipresent camera captures plenty of other examples of how Nadya is taken advantage of, sent to photo shoots that she's told are mainly for her own benefit ("They need to build their portfolios," says the disingenuous agency owner). As a veteran 23-year-old model named Rachel explains, the agency rarely notifies its models when it sells any of their photos, pocketing all of the profits instead and sending them home with nothing but debt. That certainly applies to Nadya, who's so underpaid that she tells her mother, on a rare phone call home, that she hasn't eaten in more than a day.
The life led by Nadya and the other models whose parallel journeys we glimpse are anything but glamorous, as they alternate between suffering through ego-deflating auditions and waiting aimlessly to be told what happens next. Girl Model makes you wonder about every beautiful woman who's ever stared out from a publication, poster, or billboard, looking sophisticated and self-assured. Could the real person behind that image be a hungry, homesick 13-year-old who never got a dime for her work?