Writer and director Stephen Elliott’s strong film debut Cherry isn’t like the other girls on the playground.
Cherry is an accurate, lyrical snapshot of one 18-year-old’s entry into modern-day hardcore BDSM pornography. It’s a film that performs the superhuman feat of telling several real stories at once, while composing a compelling hero’s journey into – and through – several hearts of darkness.
And delightfully, Cherry falls neatly into the hallowed halls of sophisticated “city poems” in media, such as “The Wire” and “Treme.” San Francisco: we finally have ours.
Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) is an 18-year-old girl in Long Beach with a dutiful pal Andrew (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) and a penchant for banging bad boys. She works at a laundromat to supply money for her family; a little sister, addict mother Phyllis (Lili Taylor) and angry drunk of a stepfather. She does a lingerie shoot where she negotiates herself a good deal; her first act of taking ownership of her life makes her decide to bail up to San Francisco to make a better life for herself.
With Andrew in tow (and decidedly in the frustrated friend zone), they land in SF at a hospitable homosexual’s flat. From there, Angelina explores San Francisco as we know it and her narrative arc into Kink.com (called “BOD” in the film) unfolds. At BOD she costars with Lorelei Lee, and finds an unusual allegiance with BOD’s leading lesbian director Margaret (Heather Graham).
Angelina’s journey into BDSM porn is the backdrop against which she confronts growing up and facing her family, making boundaries with friends and colleagues that fall in love with her, and her first real relationship with an adult man (James Franco).
The man turns out to be the classic San Francisco douchebag we all know (and no longer love, thank you very much) – a coked up little boy of a lawyer with a rich society mommy, a penthouse in SOMA, and a love of grinding his coffee himself by hand. Yup, that guy.
Telling you the plot gives away no spoilers. Cherry is a film that unfolds through its layered relationships. Its surprises come in exchanges in and around porn sets, Dolores Park, lesbian bars (actually, The Make Out Room) SF society fetes, and beyond. There is a lot of graphic sex and sex talk in Cherry, and I wonder what the rating will be. Elliott revealed in the post-screening Q and A that the film has just been picked up for distribution by IFC Films.
That the film’s own description calls Cherry a “love letter” is loud and clear on viewing the film. Yet in a Kabuki house packed with San Francisco denizens and fans, it was hard for me to pull out of the scene to see what the film was reaching for with wider audiences. Cherry is a joyful, wonderful love letter to San Francisco, LGBT communities, kink and porn-positive people. In a bigger sense, it’s a siren’s song to young women everywhere redefining their sexuality at this time in history, media and cultural value clashes over porn and a modern girl’s sexual relationships.
Keeping this in mind, I caught up with Steven to ask what he felt was his opportunity to say with this film to those that aren’t directly addressed in this love letter. For if you know Stephen, you know he’s thinking laterally, not just linearly.
The film, he told me, was so many things to so many people – and that’s just the way he’d planned it. Rather than a simple story about a girl that “gets into” porn, he and Lee wanted to plainly present all the elements as they happen in real life, and give viewers the freedom to decide how they felt about Cherry’s individuation and choices.
The key piece, Steven said,was that Cherry’s life was made up of a series of choices that she grew into making at each turn through her own self-examination. And an overarching theme Steven impressed to me as a cornerstone of the film’s storytelling – the thing he hoped for wider audiences – is that Cherry is a film “with porn” that isn’t about porn. It’s about a person.
And indeed the pornographic elements are sexily compelling, yet never more than narrative pieces of furniture.
The porn, while a major part of the film itself, is simply a job that Cherry has. Though this doesn’t make it boring, oh no – this is Kink.com. Also, it’s not to say that the physical risk, strangeness, intimacy or emotional risk of doing porn is played down; these things are front and center as Cherry agrees to go further for more money in each uptick of her ambition. Yet the only time Cherry’s (often graphically shown) job in BDSM porn is truly lurid, debasing or disgusting is when it’s seen through the eyes of a character that has disconnected from Cherry after she’s told them “no” for one reason or another.
I think it’s an experience almost every girl can relate to.
Locals will love the SF tropes – they’re real and sorta painful to see onscreeen. And the very normal handling of LGBT culture, in all its permutations, as it is in The City. Yet SFians will really enjoy that much of the film was shot at Kink.com inside the Armory – the parts we seldom get to see. And it’s not just a cool thing to see the girls banter and flirt in makeup, prepping in rubber couture (after all, this is the highest-end porn studio in the world), the backdrops of Fucking Machines, and areas of Kink only performers and HR get to see. We get to see a fairly accurate pastiche of the process of making porn at Kink – the girl’s job interview, meeting other performers, director guiding solo and boy-girl scenes, and much more (including snippets of final product.)
Cherry is a strong, complex film. It won’t make you cry, it might make you laugh, and it’s not for everyone – but it will definitely have you visiting its strange places in your head long after the final credits.