Your Guide To Becoming A Docuphile: Girl Model And Living Dolls

Each week, I'll bring you brief reviews of my recommendations to watch. Consider it a primer to be becoming a docuphile. I encourage you to leave your favorite documentaries in the comments or tweet at me at @robinhardwick. This week: children exploited for the film/fashion/pageant industry!

What: Girl Model (2011)

Who: Thirteen-year-old Nadia, discovered in the Ukraine by a modeling agent and sent to Japan on her own to pursue a career and Ashley, the former model now working as a model scout.

What makes it a compelling story: With the promise of fame and fortune, young Nadia leaves her family in rural Siberia after being scouted by Ashley and is sent to Japan with no money, knowledge of Japanese or anything lined up. She doesn't get a lot of gigs and overall suffers, but lasts because she wants to bring money home to her family. It's heartbreaking. But I can't stop watching. She goes from go-see to go-see with no success, and breaks down during the few times she gets to call her family. Why go through it? She's promised tons of success.

The film opens with an open call in Siberia, where hundreds of waif-like preteens strut in bikinis. Scout Ashley looks for the ones that look the youngest, because that is what sells in Japan. We also follow Ashley though her journey, and we find her to be... well, eccentric. She keeps plastic infant dolls in her minimalist Connecticut home to pretend she has children, and she is still kicking herself as a failure as a model. This woman is apparently very self-critical, and it's baffling that she would perpetuate the industry and false promises to other girls.

This doc is far from uplifting and showcases a lot of adults that are making money exploiting the innocent and ignorant. The one thing that gave me hope is that Nadia seemed very mature and sweet, and if not in modeling, she will succeed in what she does (I hope).

What: Living Dolls: The Making Of A Child Beauty Queen (2001)

Who: Six-year-old Swan Brooner and her mother, and other kiddie pageant hopefuls.

What makes it a compelling story: Where the popular Toddlers And Tiaras exploits its subjects for entertainment and judgement, its precursor Living Dolls, an HBO documentary, is dead serious. The film follows six-year-old Swan Brooner and her mother Robin through the pageant circuit. Whether Swan enjoys it or not is irrelevant; as expected, it is the the mother's dream. Swan's pageant smile, although the widest, is also the saddest because it's like a scared animal in a cage. Nonetheless Swan annihilates the other contestants. The opening features Swan belting a big number and it's the most heartbreaking thing you will ever hear.

Michael Taylor and his partner Shane King are the premier pageant coaches, and despite your feelings about child beauty pageants, are born to be pageant coaches. The two men also have a daughter, Leslie Butler, who looks like they genetically engineered her for pageants. Her perfection and obedience is mesmerizing.

One of the craziest parts of child pageants is the concept of pro-am, which is the unique posing/dancing/movement that the girls do when they are on stage. It's insane; they look like they are marionettes who are being electrocuted. However, it's a learned skill they take lots of practice from pageant coaches.

Toddlers And Tiaras' short format just shows the crazy antics of the parents, but Living Dolls, being a longer film, gives insight to Swan and her mother's (very sad) life, giving more context to her intentions.

Also, there's a girl named "Kynnedy" who is seven that looks thirty, and whose father is mortified at the way she is sexually during pageants. It's equal parts hilarious and disturbing, just the way I like my documentaries!

You can find Living Dolls on YouTube.

Also worth checking out in the child exploitation documentary world is The Hollywood Complex, which I reviewed previously.

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