About Cherry, the debut feature from The Adderall Diaries writer and The Rumpus founder Stephen Elliott, is more about what it isn’t than what ends up onscreen. It’s the story of an 18-year-old girl (Ashley Hinshaw) who flees an unhappy home in Long Beach and ends up working in porn under the name “Cherry” in San Francisco. While not everything is sunshine and roses in her new life, she isn’t exploited or victimized in her work. She’s actually in control and happy with what she does. The problems that arise have to do with everyone else’s difficulty coming to terms with her choice of job.
Hinshaw’s venture into adult entertainment is a gradual thing. The film sketches out the precariousness of her home life without histrionics. Her mother (Lili Taylor) loves her children but struggles with alcoholism, and Hinshaw shares a bed with her younger sister to protect her from a stepfather who stops by her room at night. When her boyfriend pushes her toward someone who’ll pay her for nude photos for a website, she dumps the guy but keeps the career, ending up at Bod, a company inspired by and located in the same historical building as Kink.com.
About Cherry is a terminally San Francisco movie, from its romanticized Mission District setting to its portrayal of the city as cheerily pansexual to its female-led fetish shoots, as giggly and mutually admiring as a middle-school sleepover. While the film, which was co-written by adult actress Lorelei Lee, deserves credit for its relentless sex-positivity, it has a didactic undercurrent, making its main character into a beautiful blank, ready to blossom under the bright camera lights and to be unabashed in the face of the unenlightened. Among those are her hypocritical mother, her best friend (Dev Patel) and her coke-snorting lawyer boyfriend (James Franco, coasting), who all ultimately fail to support her, leaving Heather Graham, a director at Bod, to affirm her choices. It’s only in its portrayal of the demise of Graham’s relationship that About Cherry offers some much-needed complexity by suggesting that the sex industry can also be an island unto itself, a refuge, but an isolating world. Demanding everyone accept you as you are can be a way of refusing to compromise, and the film’s failure to explore this aspect of the lifestyle its portraying is almost as disappointing as moralizing would be.