Using the genre trappings of the superhero origin story, Amazon’s new drama The Power explores society’s preoccupation with and fear of pubescent girls. The series, which I’m not actually reviewing here, delves into how vast corners of the law and organized religion have been unconsciously or very consciously advanced to deny those girls agency. In the case of The Power, that agency arrives not in the form of legislation or a Supreme Court verdict, but as an evolutionary ability to generate and wield electricity. The patriarchy is in for a shock!
If you prefer this topic to be treated with more text and less subtext, Lana Wilson’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields moves to Hulu after a January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The two-part documentary — 136 minutes in total, but surely better suited to have been edited into a 120-minute feature — uses Shields’ alternately unsettling and inspiring journey as a vehicle to critique one of Hollywood’s ickier undercurrents and ask questions about whether or not anything has changed in the past 40-plus years.
Pretty Baby has issues with structure and focus, as well as a featured subject who isn’t always angry about the same things its storyteller is worked up about. But there’s enough candor and introspection here for the documentary to be worth watching, both for its distinctive sense of soured ’80s nostalgia and some of the potent steps in Shields’ journey of personal growth.
From some distance, the Brooke Shields phenomenon is difficult to fully fathom. The entertainment industry hasn’t magically ceased to sexualize teenage and preteen girls, but it’s a process that has perhaps become more diffuse with social media and cable and streaming aiming for different niches. Shields, though, was delivered into the monoculture as The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, an Ivory Soap Baby who became a commercial sensation; then, in a way that presumably couldn’t exactly be reproduced today, she became a movie star in a series of vehicles dedicated, with wildly varying levels of artistry and prurience, to showcasing her sexuality, even if Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love were all made before she turned 18.
As Wilson, Shields and the doc’s talking heads quickly acknowledge, it wasn’t like pockets of society weren’t disturbed and maybe even grossed out by the idea of Shields as a preteen prostitute or the centerpiece of a series of sexually suggestive Calvin Klein ads. But there was a more pervasive fascination. The young model/actress and her mother/manager Teri hit the talk show circuit scoffing at the notion that Shields’ career was exploitative or worse, and the magazine covers and hyperventilating tabloids lapped it up. Then, of course, Shields grew up and became a high-profile celebrity virgin, a sitcom star, went to public war with Tom Cruise and much more.
Shields presents herself here as a woman who has made it through to the other side, which will doubtlessly be reassuring for some viewers. Especially in the 69-minute first segment of Pretty Baby, though, it leaves the talking heads to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breaking down ideas like entertainment sexualizing girls as a direct response to feminism — I’d argue this is partially true, but restrictively ahistorical — and why those Shields films were able to exist in that moment.
It isn’t just that Shields is protective of her image and her mother’s image (she’s less so, later, when talking about her mother’s alcoholism); she simply isn’t interested in being scathing or dishy or in playing the role of advocate. Footage from Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon and especially talk show interviews — so many creepy talk show interviews — from the time do the best job of underlining how unique Shields’ version of stardom was and how poorly some pockets of the entertainment industry handled it, while the various talking heads just do their best to add value.
The personal side of Shields’ life is well-documented by an assortment of friends and contemporaries, including Laura Linney, Ali Wentworth and Drew Barrymore. The entertainment/cultural side of things is well-covered by the likes of BuzzFeed scribe Scaachi Koul and podcaster/film historian Karina Longworth. But then you have a bunch of nebulously qualified sociological experts who almost never add anything of value, including at least one gentleman whose every appearance made me reach for my fast-forward button (even if I didn’t use it, because I’m a professional). Either way, with Shields hesitant to condemn anybody — her anecdote about Franco Zeffirelli yanking her toe to get a desired Endless Love sex-scene response loses power when it’s recounted twice (Wilson includes a talk show clip in which Shields tells the same story) — it’s hard not to feel like Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast covered the same material in smarter form.
The second hour, which uses Shields’ time at Princeton as the pivot for her emerging voice and agency, is more candid, but more checklist-y as the documentary works its way through interesting but unrevealing chapters in her life. Losing her virginity to Dean Cain? Check. Whether or not she dated Michael Jackson? Check. The whole Tom Cruise/ Paxil controversy? Semi-check. Shields has just discussed some of these things so frequently in the past that it feels rote, if not robotic here. When she gets to things that are less familiar — her sexual assault by an unnamed industry bigwig, the role Friends played in her divorce from Andre Agassi — she loosens up, but I wish Wilson could have found a formal approach to more frequently make Shields more comfortable.
There are elements here that hint at a better template. When Shields is in casual conversation with Wentworth, rather than sitting, over-styled and over-composed, in front of a generic backdrop, she’s a different person; the documentary could have used more of that.
It also could have used more of Shields’ family. The best scene in the documentary, by a wide margin, is a dinner in which Shields and her daughters try to make sense of what was progressive and what was regressive about her early career; it’s funny, relaxed and still welcomely analytical. That scene is a blueprint for the type of unstaged or differently staged approach that could have elevated the documentary from being solid and interesting to truly revelatory.