Brooke Shields occupies a rarified place in pop culture, a place she shares with a limited few women such as Jodie Foster, the Olsen twins, and Britney Spears, as Shields was one of the most sexualized young girls in the world during her childhood. In the 1970s and 1980s, Shields was the pre/pubescent muse of filmmakers such as Franco Zeffirelli and Louis Malle. At just 12 she was the center of a public furor around Malle’s film Pretty Baby, in which Shields stars as a child growing up in a 1910s New Orleans brothel, and the film Blue Lagoon offered the public a vicarious view of Shields, through her character Emmeline, losing her virginity at 15.
If you have forgotten or didn’t know, the new documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields gives an excellent overview of how f-cking pervy everyone was about the child-teen Shields back when, and then takes a look at how Shields evolved personally and professionally beyond her assigned role as underage temptress.
As an examination of Brooke Shields’ life and career, Baby is excellent, contextualizing Shield’s rags-to-riches rise to child stardom with her behind-the-scenes family drama and her co-dependent relationship with her alcoholic stage mom, Teri. Director Lana Wilson previously presented a solid portrait-of-the-artist with Taylor Swift and Miss Americana, but here she has a subject who is obviously more willing to expose warts and all, discussing not only the profound discomfort and disconnection of being a child incapable of understanding the cultural forces moving around her, but how those experiences later enabled Shields to compartmentalize her sexual assault at age 22. Shields’ entire life has been in the public eye, yet it’s when Shields discusses the moments no one saw, such as the deterioration of her relationship with Andre Agassi, that Baby is sharpest.
Baby is squarely focused on Shields telling her story in her own words and reflecting on how societal forces shaped her life and career, but it is a little frustrating when opportunities to connect Shields to the larger trend of young girls sexualized in media that followed in her wake are bypassed. Early on, the documentary makes the astute point that the backlash to second wave feminism is largely what fed the public appetite for “pretty babies” in media, of which Shields was one of the first—yet somehow they get through this whole documentary without namechecking Jodie Foster, the other pretty baby of the 1970s. I realize I am slightly asking the film to be something other than what it is, which is a retrospective on Brooke Shields and her bizarre childhood experiences, but Baby brushes so closely to larger social issues, and Shields is certainly smart enough to go there; there’s an entire chunk of the film dedicated to her years at Princeton and her public rebuttal to Tom Cruise’s asinine comments about post-partum depression.
For instance, one of the best moments in the documentary comes at the end, when Shields and her family sit down to dinner and her daughters discuss how films like Pretty Baby wouldn’t be made today—no one mentions Cuties, which got a very similar reception in Europe vs. the US as Pretty Baby, or that Blue Lagoon was remade in 2012—and then they bring up Euphoria, and point out that the 20-something actors are in a better place to knowingly consent to nude and sex scenes than Shields herself was at age 12, doing nude scenes in Pretty Baby. Shields seems struck by this, but the doc doesn’t dig deeper, though it is an interesting point: how we’ve shifted to using fully grown actors to portray underage characters in sexual situations, and the inherent hypocrisy of it, allowing us to enjoy the spectacle of sexual underage characters without the guilt of sexualizing underage actors.
But as Brooke Shields’ life story, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is a sort of cinematic vindication for a public figure who has never been taken as seriously as she should be. If at times I longed for a deeper exploration of themes, that’s only because Shields is so interesting and engaging as a subject, and has so much personal experience with the issue of media consumption and sexualization, that I actually want to hear more from her. Even though Baby runs over two hours long, it feels like it could easily have been a multi-part docuseries, giving more space to Shields to explore those themes she barely touches on, especially later in the doc when you can feel Wilson rushing toward the conclusion and Shields’ latest reinvention as a businesswoman. But as a retrospective, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields gives Shields her due as a survivor of countless forms of exploitation who emerged with her humor and grace intact.