Some movies waste no time announcing how they want you to feel about their characters and the things they do -- think of the vintage Westerns with the bad guys wearing black hats and the heroes with white Stetsons, or the silent melodramas with moustache-twirling villains tying helpless maidens to the train tracks. About Cherry is absolutely not that sort of movie. The film stubbornly refuses to place a moral judgment on the actions of its protagonist, which is unusual and in some respects refreshing for an American picture about a woman not yet 20 who is working in the adult-entertainment industry. As novel as it may be, as About Cherry goes along it seems director and co-screenwriter Stephen Elliott hasn't made up his own mind about the people he's put onscreen, and he often doesn't reveal enough to allow us to make an informed opinion; it's a character study that barely has characters.
In About Cherry, Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) is a pretty young woman who is about to finish high school. Angelina's home life is frankly awful -- her mother (Lili Taylor) is a barely functioning alcoholic, her father is an inarticulate and mean-spirited drunk, and her younger sister rarely bothers to talk to anyone. Angelina is dating a second-rate rock musician (Jonny Weston) who suggests she should pose for a friend who runs a website devoted to nude photography. Initially, Angelina is deeply offended (it doesn't help when she discovers her boyfriend would get a finder's fee), but as things become intolerable at home, she agrees to a photo shoot to raise the money to move out. Angelina heads to San Francisco with Andrew (Dev Patel), a friend who is clearly infatuated with her, though she either doesn't realize it or just doesn't care. They move in with Paco (Vincent Palo), a relentlessly cheerful gay hipster, and though Angelina shares a room and a bed with Andrew, their relationship remains chaste.
She soon lands a job as a waitress at an upscale strip club and meets Francis (James Franco), a handsome lawyer from a wealthy family. Francis is quite taken with Angelina, and before long the two are a couple, though she's wary of his fondness for cocaine. Angelina resists offers to work as a dancer at the club, but she does sign on with a company that produces pornographic web content to make extra money, and using the stage name Cherry she quickly goes from doing solo scenes to mock lesbian films to explicit male/female erotica.
Angelina finds an ally at the company in Margaret (Heather Graham), a director who thinks she has great potential, but Margaret's interest in Angelina is more than just professional as her long-term relationship with Jillian (Diane Farr) turns bitter. And Angelina's family troubles continue when her mother unexpectedly comes to San Francisco for a visit; after asking for money, she discovers how Angelina is making a living.
In most movies, when an 18-year-old woman starts taking her clothes off for money, it's a red flag that her life is starting to go off the rails. But in About Cherry, porn is just about the best thing that happens to Angelina -- at the very least, she's paid well, works with a group of cheerful and supportive women who have been in her position and don't judge her, and has room to move within the business (it's also a safer work environment than the dancers at the strip club face). After a while, porn seems to be a semi-happy refuge from Angelina's personal life, which is a grim roller coaster throughout the movie. As played by Ashley Hinshaw, Angelina often seems like a cipher -- it's easy to see why she's miserable at home, but on her own she sometimes appears blank and a bit difficult to read, and she's uncomfortable showing her emotions unless she has a camera pointed at her. As her loyal sidekick Andrew, Dev Patel seems content to be a thankless doormat, and it's difficult to understand why he puts up with her -- let's face it, an able-bodied 18-year-old who regularly sleeps with a beautiful woman he's in love with without trying to have sex with her is either a saint or a fool. James Franco's Francis is charming but hollow, and while he says he's an attorney, we never see any evidence that he actually practices law; he also seems far too placid to be a convincing cocaine addict, suggesting he has a backstory the film hasn't bothered to reveal. And Lili Taylor's talent is simply wasted as Angelina's mother, who mostly spouts dysfunctional clichés when she's sober enough to talk. Given About Cherry's cast, it's a bit surprising to report that Heather Graham gives the strongest performance as Margaret, who maintains a cool emotional reserve until she begins guiding her actresses through a scene. Graham communicates a great deal with small gestures, and she delivers a subtle but powerful and well-controlled turn that ranks with her best work to date.
About Cherry is the first feature from director Stephen Elliott, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lorelei Lee, an adult actress who plays a small role in the picture. One wonders if Lee is the reason why the film's view of the world of porn is better fleshed out than anything else in the movie; when Angelina isn't on a shoot or hanging out with her colleagues, About Cherry seems vague and struggles to tell us anything about who these people are and how they got that way.
Elliott has given the picture clean, well-drawn surfaces, and he makes the city of San Francisco look as beautiful as it deserves to be, but he's failed to tell a story with much in the way of depth or that presents characters whose lives are portrayed in more than one dimension. About Cherry's visual craft is strong and it features a talented cast, but most of the actors are not at their best here, and the final product shows Elliott knows how to make a film but is less clear on telling a story.