At a scant 77 minutes, there’s much more that Girl Model could have said about race, exploitation, and warped cultural standards of beauty. Instead, it shows what happens when people who have very little are offered the opportunity of a lifetime—and have no possible recourse when the deal isn’t honored.
During the Siberian equivalent of a mall star-search, 13-year-old Nadya Vall is discovered by Ashley Arbaugh, a former model and scout who’s got more issues than Vogue. Sent unescorted to Tokyo with a promising contract, Nadya spends most of her days getting turned down for jobs. When she finds herself isolated and forced to pay for all living expenses out of pocket, any pretense of glamour dies rapidly, though she still clings to her hope of providing for her family with modeling work.
And yet Arbaugh is possibly the more tragic figure. Reminiscent of Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, she drifts through her cavernous Connecticut mansion, nonchalantly holding up the naked plastic babies that represent the number of cysts she’s had removed from her uterus. Video diary snippets from her modeling days reveal the misery of constant travel, long hours, and pressure to look a certain way. Her cynicism and hatred of the industry she serves is boundless; her candor is revelatory. Despite its poor technical quality, Girl Model is a much-needed counterpoint to the irresponsible camp mentality of Toddlers & Tiaras.