About Cherry: Berlin Film Review

Working from a screenplay of stunning superficiality, this attempt to shift preconceptions about the porn industry is neither provocative nor dramatically persuasive.

Ashley Hinshaw, James Franco, Dev Patel, Lili Taylor and Heather Graham star in this supposedly myth-busting chronicle of a young woman's absorption into the adult-film industry.

BERLIN — What’s a gorgeous 18-year-old blonde to do when she’s got a minimum-wage laundromat job, an alcoholic mother and a violent, sexually predatory stepfather? Why, drop out of high school, drift into the nurturing porn industry and segue from acting into directing under the protective wing of a lipstick lesbian who followed the same path, of course. That’s pretty much the simplistic outline of Cherry, novelist-turned-filmmaker Stephen Elliott’s toothless account of a young woman carving out a life for herself, which doubles as a helpful how-to guide for a career in adult film.

Chalk this up as another mystifying excursion into the commercial outer margins for James Franco. Doing the usual smiley-sleepy-sexy thing he does when not being directed, the actor has shown up, presumably smoked whatever weed was on the craft-services table and learned a few lines, or something close to them. Franco optioned Elliott's book "The Adderall Diaries" in 2010, planning to adapt, direct and star in it, but otherwise it's unclear why he would be here in a role that’s more functional than interesting.

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Not wanting to end up like her boozy mother, Phyllis (Lili Taylor), hurling into the tub every night or passed out on the sofa, Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) follows the suggestion of her boyfriend, Bobby (Jonny Weston), that she make some bucks by posing for erotic photos. When Bobby has second thoughts after the fact, Angelina responds by fleeing Long Beach, whisking her best friend, Andrew (Dev Patel), off to San Francisco.

Angelina starts cocktail-waitressing at a lap-dancing bar where she meets Frances (Franco), who has sold his artistic soul to become a lawyer. She also signs on with an adult film company where everyone is super-friendly and supportive — it’s just like Whole Foods! Adopting the screen name Cherry, she gets lucky with dream director Margaret (Heather Graham) on her first solo shoot. That experience is so easy-breezy she soon graduates to girl-on-girl, fetish and guy action.

The conflicts, such as they are, arise outside the workplace. Oblivious to the doe-eyed glances poor Andrew has been shooting her since the start of the movie, Angelina has an icky reaction when she comes home and finds him watching her online in a sexy cop uniform, as she uses her truncheon on a naughty girl prisoner. And at the same time that cokehead Frances is expressing his disgust with her line of work, Margaret’s girlfriend of eight years (Diane Farr) suddenly develops issues about her profession. Guess where the two misunderstood ladies turn for comfort?

Dramatically feeble and fraudulent, the film’s half-baked point of view appears to be that porn can be a viable field in which it’s possible for a woman to take ownership of her body and her life. But neither veteran Margaret nor newbie Angelina offers any articulate opposition to the more prejudicial views.

The refusal to take a moral stance is perfectly legitimate, but the lack of any intelligent insight isn’t. This is particularly disappointing given that director Elliott is a former sex worker and his co-screenwriter, Lorelei Lee, has worked as a porn performer. (Her credits show that she’s big on sequels, having appeared in Slave Dolls 3, Flower’s Squirt Shower 4 and Your Sister Loves Black Cock 2, which I thought was a Kanye West song.)

Having Graham on hand to recall Boogie Nights only serves as a reminder that this movie is too witless even to have some fun with the porn scenes. Rocking the flatironed hair, Graham explores every millimeter of her range, showing all the emotion of a toothpaste model even during fierce lesbian breakup sex.

Hinshaw scrapes by because the camera loves her (and she shows enough skin to land a Cinemax sale), but the character has zero complexity. When Angelina learns that her kid sister (Maya Donato) has been molested by their stepfather — or at least that’s what is implied — the sympathetic hug she gives her might just as well be a response to an acne breakout.

Taylor gets the job of delivering subtext as jaded Phyllis chimes in about the futility of depending on men, and Patel gives the closest thing to a committed performance as thankless Andrew.

Cherry actually looks quite sharp, with cinematographer Darren Genet clearly using a high-grade digital camera to get such crisp definition and depth of field. But, really, when a movie piles up as many banalities as this one, who cares?

About Cherry was reviewed under its original title, Cherry, at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)

Production companies: Kink.com, Enderby Entertainment, Bijelonic/Turner Films, Visualiner

Cast: Ashley Hinshaw, James Franco, Dev Patel, Lili Taylor, Jonny Weston, Heather Graham, Diane Farr, Maya Donato, Vincent Palo

Director: Stephen Elliott

Screenwriters: Stephen Elliott, Lorelei Lee

Producers: Liz Destro, Jordan Kessler, Rick Dugdale, Elana Krausz

Executive producers: Bendrix Bailey

Director of photography: Darren Genet

Production designer: Michael Grasley

Music: Jeff Russo

Costume designers: Daniella Turner, Tamara Chandler

Editor: Michelle Botticelli

No rating, 102 minutes