As unaffected and fat-free as the would-be superstars it profiles, the intrepid “Girl Model” gets inside the virtual human trafficking of beautiful young Russians into the netherworld of the Japanese modeling market, tracking one young blonde Siberian’s experience from breathless hopeful to damaged dreamer. Broadcast on PBS is assured, but the vaguely salacious nature of the story and the tenacity of the directors could help further advance a docu that manages to balance guileless objectivity with a very determined point of view.
Using no narration and limited titles, helmers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin open their gritty verite drama with a fantastically bleak shot overlooking the Siberian city where the story begins, and then move inside where it’s warm — a modeling meat-market that draws hundreds of young Russian girls hoping to hit the big time, parading their skinny innocence around in bargain-basement bathing suits. They all dream of being chosen to go to Japan, where work is guaranteed and a bright future is promised, both of which, not unexpectedly, turn out to be figments. But while Sabin and Redmon never actually expose anything — the slippery male characters they interview reveal little that’s overtly illicit, not even their perpetual pipeline into impoverished Russian youth — it doesn’t take a sommelier to detect the piquant bouquet of arch criminality.
The girl at the center of “Girl Model” is 13-year-old Nadya Vall, a willowy candidate whose childlike looks make her a shoo-in for the youth-obsessed Japanese market and whose consequent travails are chronicled by Sabin and Redmon, from Siberia to Tokyo and a series of misadventures that seem built into the system. But where Vall is the picture of innocence and aspiration, ex-model Ashley Arbaugh is something else. The film’s most intriguing and enigmatic character, Arbaugh now wrangles young girls for the Russian agency run by a shady customer named Tigran, and his Japanese counterpart, known as “Messiah” (a mogul who “really likes models,” as Arbaugh says, in the film’s most loaded moment).
While “Girl Model” falls a bit short in the delivery of hard facts and incriminating evidence, it more than makes up for that with its knotty psychological profile of Arbaugh, whose own video-diary entries from the mid-’90s — when she was modeling — provide a haunted glimpse into exploited youth. A visit to Arbaugh’s home in Connecticut, a spacious, rambling modernist dwelling with all the warmth of a bus station, is a creepfest: A pair of baby dolls sit upright on the couch in a living room devoid of almost all other decor. Arbaugh comments that she thought it was appropriate when she bought the house to buy the dolls, too. She has an overt desire for children and an apparent inability to have them; her need is palpable and pitiful, and the doll sequence has the mind reeling.
Still, Arbaugh continues to help funnel young girls into a business that chews them up and spits them out. “Girl Model” isn’t judgmental, except by implication, but it is a bit heartbreaking in terms of not only the girls and their plight, but also the desperation behind their families’ willingness to send children into a game so rigged against them. Their contracts, we’re told, routinely forbid them to gain weight or inches — and since adolescents who don’t grow are either sick or dying, this is clearly a way to get rid of them for any reason whatsoever. Vall ultimately doesn’t suffer irreparable damage, even if her dreams do, but what she symbolizes about the global culture’s idolization of youth and beauty — and its lack of remorse in exploiting it — speaks volumes.
Production values are understandably and perhaps appropriately horrid at times, given the seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and the nature of the characters and their story.