TRYING TO REINVENT THEMSELVES Teen prostitutes seeking help.
Like the drug dealers in The Wire or accounts of illegal trafficking of any form, the current and former teenage prostitutes in David Schisgall's documentary Very Young Girls don't often, if ever, refer to their trade as a job. It's either "the game" — a means of making good, fast cash, with the implication that you can quit playing whenever you want — or "the life." The way some of the girls say it, you can tell that "the life" is short for "the lifestyle;" the illusion that it's temporary is weakly implied. For others, the phrase carries a burdensome, seemingly insurmountable weight. Some of these girls, as young as 12, were practically raised by their pimps. They don't know another form of love, they've never known a better life, and — undereducated, underloved, and undervalued — they can't conceive of how they'd forge an entirely new existence with any comfort or security.
It's Rachel Lloyd's job to help them try. Lloyd, a co-executive producer on the film, is also the founder of GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services), the only non-profit group in New York City devoted to reforming young victims of sexual exploitation. She started the venture in her apartment, housing girls when she could, and the organization now assists 200 teenagers each year. Lloyd, a former adolescent prostitute herself, sees it as her responsibility to teach these young victims that there are alternatives to life on the street. The rub is that they necessitate tough choices — avoiding old haunts and habits, searching for jobs, returning to school. In no small part, GEMS instills in the girls that they have to make hard choices if they want to transcend their pasts.
With Schisgall's vérité approach — largely a mix of direct-to-camera confessionals and footage shot at GEMS — much of Very Young Girls addresses how these girls have learned, or have failed to learn, that lesson. Schisgall uses subjects from different backgrounds — an A-student who loves Dirty Dancing; a girl raised by her grandmother (her mother was a drug addict) until her grandmother died, leaving her alone and in the streets; a group-home foster child who arrives at the Port Authority, with no destination in mind, and is offered a ride in a Cadillac — to suggest that there's no standard or "type" of girl who falls prey to a pimp. The footage of johns and pimps in the film, including disturbing video shot by a pair of pimps who hoped to become film or television stars, bears this notion out. The pimps are perversely rational, persistent, difficult to ignore, and seemingly impossible to escape.
While Schisgall elicits alternately uplifting and heartbreaking confessions from his female subjects, there are moments in the film, like the video by the pimps, suggesting that the director could have successfully expanded the scope of his project without sacrificing its intimate integrity. Many of the most disturbing facts we learn — the average age of a girl entering into prostitution is 13; the fate of a minor arrested as a prostitute is often in the hands of a single judge, many of whom are inclined to jail the girls rather than give them an opportunity to reform; if a pimp abducts a girl, the police have no ability to help find her without witnesses or concrete evidence — are mentioned in passing, but we're left wondering about the fight against the systemic issues surrounding teenage prostitution, such as the subjective, sometimes unduly punitive court system, which could perhaps be overhauled.
If the film, particularly in its second half, would benefit from some more galvanizing information, Schisgall's footage is often indelible. In one scene, a girl recently admitted to GEMS meets her new roommates. She asks what they do to stay distracted, but soon begin to dish about life on the streets, rattling off the names of "tracks" (locations worked) and pimps, looking for friends or enemies in common. The conversation electrifies them, and the most arduous hurdle the girls face — the effort to abandon the only life and people they've ever intimately known, and start anew, often alone — is raised once again.
Christopher Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VERY YOUNG GIRLS | directed by David Schisgall and Nina Alvarez | 83 minutes | Swinging T Productions | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | March 26 @ 7:30 pm | $7 | 207.828.5600