NEW YORK—Sexy Baby: A Documentary About Sexiness and the Cyber Age had its world premiere in New York Friday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, which was three plus years in the making, was conceived by journalist Jill Bauer and photographer Ronna Gradus and tells the stories of three women—who, starting with a precocious 12-year-old, are exactly ten years apart in age—through the cinematic lens of sex and the internet. The filmmakers say they are the first documentary makers to "put faces to a seismic cultural shift: the cyber age is creating a new sexual landscape."
It is being called an "important film" by IndieWire, which in this context means "scary as shit."
"Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ Sexy Baby had its world premiere Friday night at the AMC Lowes Village 7 in front of a packed crowd with a predictably female tilt," wrote Jay A. Fernandez. "Fest co-founder Jane Rosenthal introduced the film with the straightforward admonition that as the mother of two teenage girls, she feels this doc is 'the scariest movie I watched' from the fest program. When some in the crowd chuckled, she added, 'We can laugh about it, but it’s not funny.’”
Yes, those audience members should be ashamed of themselves for chuckling about a hyperbolic statement instead of understanding the inherently unfunny fact that Jane Rosenthal has two teenage girls at risk! And that it took this documentary on sex and the internet for her to realize just how threatened they are! Now what's so funny about that, huh, stupid festival-goer?! Wake up and smell the porn, ladies!
Rosenthal is not the only person to find herself under the thrall of Sexy Baby, whose intent is to send a cold chill down the collective spine of parents, kids, and everyone in between. The filmmakers claim to have compiled a "vast collection" of empirical evidence during their research for the film that supports their revelation that "much of what was once private is now made public."
"While doing research for the film," they explain on the Sexy Baby website, "we had intimate and candid conversations with kids in middle school classrooms, suburban shopping malls, nightclubs, college dorms, and even conducted an informal roundtable during a high school house party. While chronicling trends among small town and big city kids, we discovered this: Having pubic hair is considered unattractive and 'gross.' Most youngsters know someone who has emailed or texted a naked photo of themselves. Many kids have accidentally or intentionally had their first introduction to sex be via hardcore online porn. Facebook has created an arena where kids compete to be 'liked' and constantly worry about what image to portray..."
Those experiences told them that a very large story needed to be told, and that it would best be told intimately and personally through their three characters—the precocious 12-year-old New Yorker, the 22-year-old North Carolina kindergarten teacher considering labia reduction surgery, and the 32-year-old former porn star who now teaches pole-dancing. Why, you ask?
"At first glance, it may seem difficult to understand why we put a former porn star, a plastic surgery patient and a 12-year-old girl, in the same film. But this was no accident," the filmmakers explain. "We found that the adult entertainment world, represented in our film by Nakita, is trickling into the mainstream world and affecting both Laura’s and Winnifred’s lives—but in profoundly different ways. Nakita becomes an ironic role model of sorts. Laura is an embracer of mainstream culture. And Winnifred is our eyes and ears, constantly questioning the status quo."
What's so scary about that, you might be wondering. IndieWire's Fernandez explains, "The resulting film is harrowing, graphic and poignant—essential viewing for everyone living in a post-internet age where boys 'learn' about anatomy from hip-hop, girls feel increasingly compelled to expose and change their bodies to fit unrealistic and unhealthy icons and parents are stuck in impossible 24/7 watchdog roles. Women of all ages, several of whom were muttering how excited they were to get into the TFF screening, were well represented in an audience that was receiving the film's message with audible distress: Older women around me were muttering, 'Oh my gawd,' and 'Close your eyes' (and not just at the explicit imagery)."
If you're still a tad confused, maybe this will help.
"In a film with plenty of cringe-worthy moments," Fernandez further explains, "this one from Winnie, surely the planet's most self-assured and witty preteen, had me scared to death: 'Just because I know it’s corrupting me doesn’t mean I don’t still want it.'
"Oh, boy, are we in trouble."
We sure are, if propaganda is now what passes for compelling documentary filmmaking. According to Ronna Gradus in a HuffPo interview that also included her co-director, the genesis of the subject matter did not come out of a "vast collection" of research, as she and Bauer claim on the movie's site, but out of a very personal reaction to ... pole-dancing.
"I was shooting a pretty boring story about a noise ordinance, [involving] the club scene in Coconut Grove, Fla., and it was College Night Out. All of the mainstream clubs had poles," she said, when asked what inspired Sexy Baby. "Girls were dancing on them, and their classmates and other guys were putting tips in their shorts. It was total stripper behavior.
"I went clubbing in high school and saw plenty of crazy things," she continued, "but there was some sort of vibe here—something about this was really upsetting to me.
"I called Jill [Bauer], and I was like, 'I had the weirdest experience, and I can't figure out what it was.' Later in the day, she looked through the pictures and helped me articulate what was so weird."
Luckily, Jill had it all figured out.
"I noticed in one particular picture [that] the girls were really trying hard, dancing and writhing on the pole and doing all sorts of stuff to get the guys' attention, and the guys were a little bit checked out," she said. "It wasn’t as titillating as it should have been, and that really intrigued me. I thought, 'This is the kind of thing that would be, I don’t know … interesting to guys, so why are they not that glued to it?'"
"It's like they were all sort of just role-playing," interjected Gradus, "kind of on autopilot, like, "This is what we do now, we dance on stripper poles.'"
Bauer told the interviewer, "I said, 'I don’t exactly know what this story is, but I feel like there is a story here.'"
And so they began their search for three women whose stories would reflect the discomfort they experienced watching college kids pole-dancing in a club as part of a story on the "seismic shift" in our culture that has been caused by internet porn and social networking sites.
And what did they themselves learn from making Sexy Baby?
"It's more computer-focused, Facebook-focused," said Bauer. "Like, Like, Like—20 Likes, 30 Likes, 40 Likes, wow, I’m a superstar—versus I’m just going to pass you a note in class and admire you. Instead of 'I’m going to hit you on the playground because I’m telling you in my way that I like you,' it's 'Let me slap you silly because I saw it in porn.'"
Really? Kids are acting out porn slapping on the playground? Really?
"Watching Winifred put up her pictures on Facebook," answered Gradus, "I just kept thinking to myself, thank God this was not around when I was coming of age."
Needless to say, Winifred is not close to being as nonplussed by this scary new world as Ronna or Jill, or IndieWire's Fernandez or the distressed audience members, for that matter, which is precisely the hook used by the filmmakers to render their "coming of age" tale into a horror movie.
Obviously, this writer has not had a chance to see the film but the movie's trailer does a pretty good job of encapsulating the point of view of the filmmakers regarding the subject at hand. Of particular note is the eerie piano note indicating that something evil this way comes. And how fortuitous was it that their subjects verbalized the very ideas that Gradus and Bauer experienced that day with the college strippers?
It would, in fact, be unlikely that anyone watching this movie did not share the filmmakers' feelings on the subject, as ill-formed as they may be, because their intent from the beginning, even before casting had been completed, was to produce their own "upsetting" emotions in others. That is what contemporary documentary filmmakers believe is their task and responsibility, and that is what these two, with their crack team, have apparently accomplished with Sexy Baby. It does not follow, however, that they are any closer to knowing "what this story is," even as they insist that "there is a story here."
Color me cynical, but you can expect more of these prefab pieces in the future, though I continue to hope that, in the aggregate, something useful will come out of them.