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by Eric Kohn
February 16, 2012 10:45 AM
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BERLIN REVIEW: Even With James Franco, Porn Tale 'Cherry' Bombs

Ashley Hinshaw in "Cherry."
There's much to admire about "Cherry," first-time writer-director Stephen Elliott's portrait of a disgruntled teen whose increasingly seedy interests lead her down a path that culminates in a porn career. Ashley Hinshaw delivers a believably angst-riddled performance as 18-year-old Angelina, a San Francisco high school dropout eager to leave the home where her alcoholic mother (a demonically eyed Lili Taylor) holds her back.

For the first couple of scenes, "Cherry" follows Angelina's solemn existence with a serious, perceptive framework. However, there's enough potential to make its unraveling especially apparent: When "Cherry" bombs, it bombs hard.

While the character's motives make sense, the movie as a whole struggles to understand them, setting "Cherry" on a downward slope to mediocrity and half-formed storytelling where even the supposedly enervating sex lacks any hint of joy. At first lured into posing nude for the photographer friend of her rock-star boyfriend, Angelina eventually finds her way into a porn gig while waiting tables at a strip club. There, she follows the direction of an encouraging lesbian porn director (Heather Graham) who first meets Angelina while dictating her on-camera masturbation.

But while that scene radiates an understandably palpable amount of heat, the ensuing story fails to keep up, going through tired melodramatic motions as Angelina endlessly bickers with her mother and hesitantly falls into a relationship with a slick, high-society patron from the strip club (James Franco). Watching Franco deliver another off-kilter performance that dances between unintentional awfulness and premeditated eccentricities offers the usual charms -- in this case, he does lines of coke while lecturing Angelina about art history -- but his sleepy-eyed routine in this case results in a hollow character to match the similarly uninspired material.

While Angelina's attraction to the Franco figure makes little sense, another subplot involving her roommate (Dev Patel) is even more astoundingly ill-conceived. The "Slumdog Millionaire" star supposedly plays her longtime straight pal with whom she shares no romantic attraction whatsoever, but his sexual orientation is an unintentional puzzle piece the movie never resolves. (I found myself wondering if the screenwriters realized they had written a gay character by accident, then just went with the original plan for the hell of it.)

Before all else, however, "Cherry" focuses on the process by which Angelina slowly grows comfortable with her titular onscreen alter ego, baring her body for the camera as a cathartic release from the baggage of her day-to-day life. That transition makes sense, but the screenplay fails to explore it in a meaningful way or even simply indulge in the naughtier aspects of exploring the profession.

No "Boogie Nights" aspirations here: "Cherry" maintains a small, tame narrative that promises slight improvements to its formula at every turn before running into a wall. For instance, when it takes the focus off Angelina and shifts to the Graham character's relationship with her workaholic girlfriend, "Cherry" virtually becomes an entirely different and somewhat more involving movie, if only because of its basic dramatic hook.

But the main plot of "Cherry" finds Angelina routinely struggling to reconcile her career decision with her family obligations, both to her crazed mother and naive younger sister. But the argument constantly shifts: One moment, "Cherry" valorizes the porn business; the next, the filmmaker indulges in a painfully on-the-nose sequence juxtaposing discussion of drug addiction with on-camera sex.

"Cherry" eventually winds down with a laughably tidy resolution, celebrating a new approach to the oft-cited "male gaze" by putting it in the hands of a confident young woman. But it gets to that conclusion by way of a dry, uninteresting story occasionally enlivened by cheap titillation, which oddly defeats the only good point that "Cherry" has to make.

Criticwire grade: C-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, "Cherry" will likely find some appreciative audiences on the U.S. regional festival circuit and a small distributor with the ability to capitalize on its potential in the VOD marketplace.

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3 Comments

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  • Franco'sTheMan | February 16, 2012 12:16 PMReply

    I'm still watching anything with James Franco in it. What do you mean "another off-kilter performance that dances between unintentional awfulness and premeditated eccentricities offers the usual charms", sorry Franco never fails to deliver as an actor.

    Oh well, some movies win some and lose some, the audience has to judge for themselves when it comes out, good thing Franco's got other projects. The trailer looked good, feel sorry for all involved but it might still be a hit with some.