For a story about an abandoned 16-year-old who finds employment and friendship at a low-rent massage parlor, "Lover Girl" is a surprisingly light and bright entertainment. This slight but modestly engaging indie effort strikes a sisterhood-is-powerful note as its heroine forms a surrogate family with her co-workers.

For a story about an abandoned 16-year-old who finds employment and friendship at a low-rent massage parlor, “Lover Girl” is a surprisingly light and bright entertainment. Scrupulously avoiding B-movie sleaze and TV-movie moralizing, this slight but modestly engaging indie effort strikes a sisterhood-is-powerful note as its heroine forms a surrogate family with her co-workers. Trouble is, the plot synopsis alone may be enough to generate censorious outrage and, perhaps, frighten away potential distributors. Pic likely will fare best in cable and video venues.

Tara Subkoff (“All Over Me”) is well cast as Jake, a feisty but vulnerable teen who hits the road after her mother “forgets” to come home from a vacation. She tracks her older sister, Darlene (Kristy Swanson), to an apartment house in a dodgy L.A. neighborhood. But Darlene turns her away, leaving Jake broke, hungry and homeless

Darlene’s brassy neighbor Marci (Sandra Bernhard) takes pity on Jake, giving the girl some food and allowing her to stay over. When Jake discovers Marci is manager of the American Spa, a massage parlor down the block, the teen convinces her dubious benefactor to give her a job.

It takes quite a bit of convincing on Jake’s part, since she is dangerously underage. Before long, however, Marci allows Jake to join the ranks of the working girls; the catch is, Jake must never be visible when the establishment’s owner (Susan Barnes) is on the premises.

“Lover Girl” generates most of its low-key humor by concentrating on the interaction among the spa employees. Marci is as much their den mother as their boss, and permits them to share her crowded apartment so they have minimal housing expenses. (Jake shares Marci’s bed, though there’s never any indication that their relationship is other than platonic.)

The veteran “masseuses” quickly accept Jake — who adopts the name Candy for professional purposes — as part of the family.

Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, who share writing and directing duties, are conspicuously evasive when it comes to showing just how far Jake/Candy goes with her clients. That’s a cop-out, of course, but more explicit detail might have darkened the generally sunny mood; the filmmakers emphasize that she never faces the threat of physical harm.

Bernhard gives one of her more restrained and subtly nuanced performances, and her fine work does a lot to keep “Lover Girl” from being too sordid. Marci comes across as a tough customer who keeps an eye on the bottom line, but is genuinely fond of her “girls” and unexpectedly maternal toward Jake.

A good thing, too, because if she appeared predatory or exploitative in any way, pic simply wouldn’t work.

Subkoff develops a credible characterization and is at her best in scenes opposite Bernhard. Swanson is a standout in a supporting cast that includes Loretta Devine, Renee Humphrey and Sahara Lotti as massage parlor employees, and Barnes as the spa’s hard-bitten owner.

Tech values evidence some smart penny-pinching on a limited budget.

Lover Girl

Production

A Dream Entertainment production in association with Peninsula Films. Produced by Larry Rattner, Ehud Bleiberg, Yitzhak Ginsberg, Mark Pierce. Executive producer, Allison Anders. Co-producers, Lansing Parker, Ross Hammer. Directed, written by Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Dean Lent; editor, Poppy Das; music, Mark Kilian; production design, Elisabeth A. Scott; costume design, Victoria Farrell; sound (Dolby), Jason Maltz; assistant director, Eric Mofford; casting, Heidi Klein, Robin Klein. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 11, 1997. Running time: 87 min.

With

Marci - Sandra Bernhard Darlene - Kristy Swanson Jake - Tara Subkoff Coco - Loretta Devine Jean - Susan Barnes Teddy - Renee Humphrey Bambi - Sahara Lotti Wright - Tim Griffin
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