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Note: This post contains spoilers.

Girl Model shows the modeling industry as anything but beautiful. In fact, the whole industry appears pretty screwed up through the lens of this raw documentary.

The insight into this industry comes from two perspectives: a model scout and a beginning model.

Ashley is the model scout. She modeled for several years before moving to scouting, which allows her to travel and offers her a sizable income. She scans the world for models suitable for the Japan market, which seeks very young and very thin girls.

Nadya is the new model. She is just 13 and from Siberia. Ashley chooses her to go to Japan under contract, which supposedly guarantees two jobs and $8,000.

Life in Tokyo for Nadya is lonely and depressing. She lives in a tiny room and sees no money from the shoots she does. She speaks no Japanese, and few people help her along the way. The agency calls this time an “opportunity” for the girls to find themselves and their strengths. Isolated, Nadya instead longs for home.

The arrival of Madlen, another model, eases her loneliness and destitution somewhat as Madlen comes with her own phone and credit card. The two friends explore Tokyo and learn more about their expectations under the agency’s contract.

The contracts favor the agency and give the agency almost complete control over the girls’ lives. Any increase in size by more than a centimeter results in termination. No tanning, no swimming, no traveling. Not meeting other obligations results in charges against the girl. Many of the girls come from poor homes, and any debt is beyond their means.

Life for Ashley is much different, but no less depressing. Ashley is a former model who left the industry bitter, angry, and frustrated. Scouting brought her income and more freedom on her terms, but her unexamined self-hatred continues and skews her perspective. For example, she claims, “It’s just normal to be a prostitute. For them [poor girls], you know? Maybe it’s easier than being a model. I don’t know.”

The most telling scene in this documentary comes when Ashley visits Nadya and Madlen in Tokyo. The encounter is cold. Ashley explores their dismal apartment, while Nadya and Madlen just want her to leave.  Ashley offers them no help, no encouragement. After all, in her mind, her job in recruiting the two is done.

We should be horrified, and the minimal style of this documentary helps bring this forward. The warmest moments of the documentary occur with Nadya at home with her family. Otherwise, locations are stark and gray urbanscapes. No narration makes the documentary feel eerie at times, bringing forward the horror of what we are seeing; titles offer explanation instead. Well-timed questions to and statements from industry and agency execs make that horror even more real in the callousness of their comments. None of them see the recruiting of younger and younger girls as models, of locking them into one-sided contracts, and of letting the girls fend for themselves for so little money as a problem.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.