Meet Monica Velour is a cruel movie. It’s also cruelly unfunny. Part comic coming-of-age tale, part trailer-park melodrama, Keith Bearden’s feature debut is the kind of film that spends its first half humiliating its actresses only to show in the end that, like its youthful hero after he learns his requisite lesson about female agency, the thing’s all heart.
The film is likewise the type of comedy whose idea of “edgy” humor is to show its nerdy 17-year-old lead driving around in a “Weiner Wiz” hot dog truck that some redneck asshole has spray painted with the word “faggot” and an arrow pointing to the driver. The nerd in question is recent high school grad Tobe (Dustin Ingram), living in suburban hell with his grandfather and given to a decades-spanning love of geeky popular culture ranging from 1930s Tin Pan Alley music to 1980s porn. In particular, he’s obsessed with one-time adult star Monica Velour (Kim Cattrall), whose videos fill out his ample VHS collection. When the opportunity to sell his truck to a fellow pop-culture nut in Indiana coincides with a nearby live appearance by his favorite porn actress, he drives off for the heartland only to stumble upon Velour as a 49-year-old has-been, struggling to survive by working sleazy strip clubs while dueling with her monstrous ex-husband for custody of her daughter.
Velour’s is truly a hellish world, though the film would have us believe that no problem’s too big to overcome as long as we adopt the proper attitude. The ex-porn star is introduced in a scene of utter humiliation—for Cattrall as much as for her character—in which she’s forced to perform a striptease for a crowd of jeering hicks who make Depends jokes, before she’s unceremoniously fired from her job for being too old and returns to her wood-paneled trailer-park home. None of which should be too much of a surprise in a movie that’s already given us a scene where teenagers spy on a nerdy fat girl masturbating with a vibrator, but the relentlessness with which Velour’s age (49) is used against her is less a comment on notions of female beauty than on the director’s sadistic tendencies.
Our heroine’s a tough cookie and she’s got a staunch, if ineffectual, defender in Tobe, who, not the least bit fazed by her age or circumstances, continues to worship her. Still, the film milks her misery at least one too many times (when she swigs a just-purchased jug of cheap wine outside of a supermarket in broad daylight) before Tobe’s generosity starts to set her on the right track. To be fair, the film is resistant to the young hero’s attempts to shape Monica to his will (a more benevolent version of the tendencies of all the men in her life) and a stern life lesson delivered from the older woman to her young admirer is the film’s least clueless moment, but ultimately what matters in this movie is that Tobe is allowed his initiation into manhood (both in the sexual and non-sexual senses), never mind what happens to Velour.
Finally, the film doubles as a celebration of geek culture, but despite the director’s clear love for cornball Americana, his commitment seems as half-hearted as Tobe’s attempt to posit Frankenbooty as an homage to Hammer Studio’s classic horror films. In one scene, the young man visits the barn of his truck’s buyer, outsider artist/kitsch collector Claude (Keith David). Amidst giant Pez dispensers and Big Boy figurines, the older man delivers an ode to “American culture.” Claiming that we don’t have any “Sistine Chapels” in this country, he proposes his junk pieces as the nation’s authentic art. (Apparently it’s either Michelangelo or Bob’s Big Boy—never mind Rothko and Twombly!) But just to hedge his bets, Bearden shows us a poster of Thelonious Monk hanging on the wall, an unchallengeable claim for a legitimate popular American art should the viewer not subscribe to Claude’s thesis. In the end, our kid must give up his Velouriana and embrace real life, but the filmmaker seems to be having so much fun coming up with fake adult movie titles and fabricated porn sequences that one imagines that this renunciation is one the newly enlightened Tobe would far rather make than Bearden himself.