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“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” is a horror film. No gore, no jump scares, but plenty of wincing for all spectators to endure. Shields presents a candid account of her career, matter of fact regarding how normal it all felt.
Her life unfolds chronically, establishing her early presence on the small screen and in modeling. Then comes 1978’s “Pretty Baby.” Shields debuts as a 12-year-old prostitute in early-century New Orleans. As scenes from the film present a sexualized minor, Shields reflects on her treatment on set. This establishes a pattern consistent through the two-part Hulu docuseries.
Next up on the big screen, “The Blue Lagoon,” premiering not long after she turned 15. Shields never quite condemns these moments, presenting them as complicated. She loved filming on an island, but that doesn’t mean she felt safe during shooting. Rightly, Shields herself notes how such a film would never be made today.
Then comes “Endless Love,” including a truly cringe-inducing moment from the press junket when director Franco Zeffirelli admits pinching Shields’ toe during an intimate scene to evoke what is considered the best sound from his star. That’s the power of this docuseries: so much of her past has been recorded.
Those Calvin Klein ads displaying a 16-year-old delivering dialogue laced with innuendo, only for the man behind the jeans to defend himself in an interview with Diane Sawyer by calling himself a “bad boy.” Yikes, just yikes.
And there’s a series of nude photos of a very underage Shields taken by a former family friend. That alone should’ve been enough for some jail time. Nope. A legal battle transpired regarding photo ownership and if they could appear in the Playboy pub Sugar and Spice. The outcome of that case is shocking, especially considering the judge’s claims about the photos.
On this topic, “Pretty Baby” misses an opportunity. In its attempt to provide an overview of Shield’s life up until now, it doesn’t linger on this and other moments long enough. That trial’s outcome, for example, supports the docuseries’ broader themes, but there’s no clear mention of it, especially how the photos weren’t outright burned on child exploitation grounds.
As the series goes on, we learn plenty more about Shields’ college years, restarted career and brief marriage to tennis player Andre Agassi, including a disturbing reaction to her performance on a special episode of the sitcom “Friends.”
Various interviewees include familiar faces like Lionel Richie, Laura Linney, Drew Barrymore and Alexandra Wentworth. Director Lana Wilson also attempts to add cultural analysis with other voices like a BuzzFeed editor, a cultural sociologist and Jean Kilbourne, vaguely called a “writer and lecturer.”
This is where the series falls flat. Those three voices must provide the broader significance alone while the others serve as the personal testimonies in this story. That’s too much for too few sources across 148 minutes. There’s power in numbers, and “Pretty Baby” doesn’t have enough to make the big claims it does.
The real strength is found in Shields’ story told by her. With years and years to reflect on her career and personal life, she speaks with power, emotion and clarity on everything. Things get especially complicated when she discusses her mother, Teri Shields. Alcoholism and celebrity pepper Brooke Shields’ early years. And behind all the things that happened to her, mom is there.
Unlike a polished screenplay, there’s no clean resolution between mother and daughter, no lightbulb, no moment of redemption, no grandiose confrontation.
Certainly, the passage of time highlights just how awful Shields was treated as a child and teen. “Pretty Baby” certainly presents a host of irrefutable examples to support that claim with all the receipts necessary. But the bigger tragedy is that we would even need decades to ponder why this was acceptable in the first place.
As the series concludes, Shields sits with her daughters and current husband debating her career, autonomy and exploitation. It’s not a profound conclusion, but it serves as hope for “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” which begins with too many horrors for one person to carry.
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