About Cherry, a disappointingly bland and underachieving film about the porn industry, makes a big deal in its publicity about its insider bona fides. First-time director Stephen Elliott is a novelist, memoirist, and a former sex worker, while co-screenwriter Lorelei Lee is a porn performer/writer, and lecturer at New York University. Much of the film was shot inside the San Francisco Armory, which houses the porn website Kink.com. This points to the one thing the film has going for it, namely that it doesn’t go down the well-trodden path of portraying pornography as a seedy den of drug-fueled exploitation. No doubt the slightly more nuanced view comes from the shared experience of the filmmakers. Unfortunately, About Cherry replaces this with… well, with nothing much more interesting, really. “Half-baked” would be the most charitable way to describe its characters and storylines.
About Cherry centers on Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw), a comely, blonde 18-year-old with an obviously, and laughably, symbolic name. She’s saddled with an alcoholic mother (Lili Taylor), abusive stepfather, and a dead-end minimum wage slave job at a laundry. When Angelina becomes strapped for cash, her boyfriend, Bobby (Jonny Weston), persuades her, rather easily, into taking some topless photos for a website. Bobby subsequently grows a conscience and tries to get her to stop posing, but by then it’s too late. The seeds of her liberation from perpetual poverty and sexual repression have already been planted, and she flees her slum life in Long Beach, California, and heads north to San Francisco. Her best friend/confidante/doormat Andrew (Dev Patel) tags along, more loyal than any puppy, and she lands a job as a waitress in a strip club, where she meets a new man, banker/frustrated artist/cokehead Frances (James Franco), who introduces her to his high society lifestyle. But porn sounds its siren call, which she answers by knocking on the door of the offices of the website Bod, where she’s recruited by house director and nurturing den mother Margaret (Heather Graham).
Under Margaret’s tutelage, Angelina, now working under the stage name “Cherry” (yet another obvious moniker), glides from solo masturbation to girl-on-girl, S&M play, and finally full-on boy-girl scenes. Despite all the sex action, this porn company is portrayed as more wholesome and less seedy than many Hollywood film studios. Of course, this career choice causes problems with those closest to her, especially with Frances, who suddenly, seemingly with little motivation, expresses disgust with her chosen profession. Not to mention poor Andrew on the sidelines, who still sleeps chastely next to her in the same bed.
Whatever faults About Cherry has, and there are many, they can’t be laid at the feet of most of the actors, who do the best they can with the thin, undercooked material. Ashley Hinshaw is suitably photogenic as the naïf who very quickly becomes less so, and she certainly isn’t shy about the revealing nature of her role. Lili Taylor and Dev Patel valiantly attempt to breathe life in thankless, barely written roles, but the ever-ubiquitous James Franco sleepwalks, stoner-like, through his laconic, barely-there performance. He was somehow able to squeeze this role in among the million projects he’s currently involved in. The presence of Heather Graham also does this production no favors. It reminds us of her role in Boogie Nights, a film which in terms of accomplishment, as well as in providing a compelling look at the porn industry, might as well have been set in a different universe.
As porn-positive as this film so strains to be, it ultimately has almost nothing to say about its subject, other than some vaguely feminist notion of pornography as a viable avenue for women’s self-expression and empowerment. It also isn’t helped by its scattershot, ADD-like approach to character and plotting, which fails to connect crucial dots and provide plausible motivation for anything that happens. Angelina/Cherry slides so easily down porn’s primrose path, with barely a thought to the boundaries that she demolishes with each move, that any sort of real drama and audience sympathy becomes practically nonexistent. A subplot involving Margaret’s girlfriend (Diane Farr), who after an eight-year relationship suddenly decides she’s not cool with her lover working as a porn director, leads to a shockingly violent sexual episode between the two. This comes across as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to add some danger to the lukewarm drama.
In the end, About Cherry turns out to be most useful as a cautionary tale for women, surely not what the filmmakers intended. So if your boyfriend says he wants you to take a few topless pictures for online consumption, don’t do it, because from there it’s a K-Y Jelly lubricated slippery slope to hardcore fetish porn. Women, you’ve been warned.