Beauty pageants have never looked so ugly as in this latest docu from HBO’s “America Undercover.” Ironically scheduled to debut on Mother’s Day, “Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen” is an eyewitness account of what one determined Florida mom, Robin Browne, will do to make her 5-year-old daughter, Swan Brooner, into a nationally recognized child beauty queen. But more than just recording the grueling and exploitative world of child beauty pageants, writer-director Shari Cookson documents the genesis of the Britney Spears culture, where young girls are coached and rewarded for performing coyly sexual routines well beyond their years. The result is both horrifying and engrossing.
This is the cliched shoulders-back, chin-up school of training children, some as young as 18 months, to perform like circus monkeys in endless hotel ballrooms across the South. It’s a world where normal childhood events like losing a tooth counts as “points off.” Cookson is keenly aware of the controversial nature of the subject matter but follows along virtually silent, letting the people and events speak for themselves.
“One on the one hand,” says Robin, who works three jobs and has spent at least $60,000 preparing Swan for the pageant circuit, “you have to be this nurturing mother figure, on the other hand, you’ve got to kick their ass.”
The majority of the program follows Robin and Swan, who after failed attempts at the regional level, enlist a flamboyant couple who bill themselves as national pageant coaches to bring Swan into the big time.
Shane King and Michael Butler are renowned for making “butt-ugly girls” into crown-worthy material. Butler’s own daughter, Leslie, has 27 titles at age 7 and began the pageant circuit at a mere 3 weeks. During numerous coaching sessions, King drives home the importance of engaging the pageant host; after one competition, he asks Leslie, “Did you flirt with him? I’m proud of you.”
The motives of these parents are surely complex, and Cookson manages to capture moments of tenderness between parents and children. But clearly conveyed is the projection of hopes and dreams by parents onto their children. As one mother of a pageant winner tells the camera, “I hope that people do respect her more and think that she is somebody rather than a nobody.”
Ultimately, it’s the children that offer the most insight. Although every parent featured insists that his or her child wants to be a part of this culture, Cookson captures the haunting looks on the faces of the kids as they tolerate endless makeovers and hair teasings.
Technical credits are polished, with Sandra Chandler’s lensing capturing every sequin and curl. Pop music and original tunes by James McVay are cleverly incorporated for an amusing scene that synchronizes onstage performances with parents frantically prompting their children from the audience.