'Girl Model', an oddly compelling documentary, parallels the experiences of two very different people living for the most part in different parts of the world, whose paths happen to cross through their mutual involvement in the sinister world of modeling.
At the beginning of the film, in her native Siberia, Nadya Vall (a shy 13-year-old girl) wins the dubious honor of being chosen by casting agents to travel to Tokyo, where she'll launch a glamorous new career in modeling. The agents assure Nadya and her family that she'll be supervised and taken care of throughout her travels, and promise the young girl success in Japan. Nadya's family doesn't have much money, and Nadya seems excited about the opportunity to offer her family this financial blessing.
Meanwhile, we're introduced through a series of interviews and old home videos to one of the agents who selected Nadya and promised her success. Ashley Arbaugh, a thirtysomething former model, now earns a very comfortable living traveling around the world (mostly between Japan, Siberia, Paris, and her opulent "glass house" in Connecticut) and selecting girls like Nadya to fill the same seemingly desirable role that shaped (and continues to have a tremendous presence in) Arbaugh's life. It quickly becomes apparent that Arbaugh feels VERY conflicted about her ongoing involvement with modeling. On top of this, Arbaugh seems to be dealing with some kind of (undiagnosed?) mental illness, which might or might not be the result of her earlier work as a model.
The film alternately showcases Nadya's devastating journey to Japan with the footage of Arbaugh. In the former's case, we see her land at the Tokyo airport only to be greeted by absolutely nobody (remember, this is a 13-year-old girl who doesn't speak Japanese and has never even been on an airplane, much less traveled abroad); finally make her way to the tiny and cramped "apartment" where she's expected to live for the next several months (with a roommate, no less -- although Nadya's roommate, another young teen girl, at least speaks her language, and eventually proves to be Nadya's only source of support in Japan... until she's sent home with no money to show and a huge debt for "breaking her contract" by increasing her waist size by something like half an inch); attempt to survive in a foreign country without any of her promised money (not even for food); and, ultimately (despite the above circumstances, as well as other setbacks) try to find the success that she was "guaranteed" as a model.
As for Arbaugh, it's hard to know whether to sympathize with her or just feel creeped out. In both her interviews and in her personal videos, Arbaugh frequently claims to hate the modeling industry and paints a rather negative picture of it (even suggesting that many of the so-called models, possibly even herself at some point, wind up in trafficking situations or forced into prostitution). However, Arbaugh appears to be in denial that (while she might have started out as a victim) she's now an active participant in the very dark and sinister world that she claims to despise.
This becomes especially apparent in one particular scene, when Arbaugh visits Nadya and her roommate in their tiny apartment in Tokyo. There's no question that Arbaugh is well aware of the poor conditions that these young girls are trapped in (she admits to having been there before, and she's now sitting right in the middle of it), yet Arbaugh brushes off their concerns about finding jobs (something they were not only promised, but are required to do a certain amount of times in order to fulfill their "contract") and offers them no assistance or support. Arbaugh merely gives the girls an uncomfortable smile and a few fake words of encouragement before quickly fleeing the apartment and leaving them on their own again.
Then there's Arbaugh's strange home life, shown up-close in a visit to the huge Connecticut house where she lives almost entirely on her own. Arbaugh's only companions in the house are a pair of naked baby dolls that she carries around from room to room; Arbaugh tells the filmmakers that she used to have a third doll -- but that she dissected it. (?!) We also see the rather... unusual collection of photos that Arbaugh for some reason keeps in a box in her bathroom: photos of various unsuspecting models' hands and feet that Arbaugh proudly admits to taking herself under the table when the models weren't looking. And Arbaugh's bizarre obsessions aren't limited to her house; she's practically obsessed with a benign cyst that she eventually has removed from her abdomen (we "get" to see disgusting post-surgical photos in the film, and hear Arbaugh compare the size of the cyst to a baby's head as she reflects on just how much she wants to have a baby).
As odd and even at times disturbing as Arbaugh comes across in 'Girl Model', at least it's evident that she's struggling with some sort of mental illness, which lends her a bit of sympathy. There are a few other characters shown in the film who come off as far worse -- including the head of the so-called agency that employs Nadya. A man who's possibly a member of the mob, and who paints himself as a real savior (he's "helping the girls" by running the agency, in order to atone for some kind of crime he committed in a "past life" -- or so he says.) That guy is just sleazy. Then there's the 40-something year-old agent (or whatever he's supposed to be) who (to quote Arbaugh) "likes models" (and it's implied, if not outright stated, that by models she means "very young models"); *his* brief footage was enough to make my skin crawl.
I'm not sure what I expected when I decided to watch 'Girl Model'; but what I found was a surprisingly dark, vaguely unsettling, yet undoubtedly interesting eye-opener of a film. Recommended for documentary fans, or for anybody who might be curious to learn more about the less-than-glamorous side of modeling. (7/10)