Our past returns to haunt us, again and again, through documentary and documentary, until every woman mistreated by time is resurrected to have her say. It happened with Britney Spears, with Janet Jackson, with Billie Holiday and others. At the helm of this latest retrospective is Brooke Shields, in Lana Wilson’s new documentary, “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”
Premiering at Sundance and coming to Hulu later this year, the latest film from the director of “Miss Americana” places Shields’s multi-hyphenate career — model and actress, yes, but writer and advocate too — on display for nearly two and a half hours, eager to prove she is much more than a tabloid talking point.
Wilson’s film is named for Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” in which Shields starred as a 12-year-old prostitute in this historical drama written by Polly Platt. Malle’s film was the urtext through which Shields was often viewed: a highly sexualized and possibly exploited child, possessed with ethereal and otherworldly beauty that men could not help but capitalize upon. Through Malle’s film and “The Blue Lagoon,” “Endless Love” and a series of Calvin Klein ads, Shields was considered a public sex symbol long before she was 18, whether or not she had any say in it.
Shields’s reflections paint, as they often do in these types of films, a different reality. She was a working model and actress, less concerned with her image on film if only because Shields knew it was not a reflection of herself as she was in reality. She went everywhere with her mother, Teri, who often advocated on her behalf. A series of talk-show clips in “Pretty Baby” show how articulate Shields was from an early age, how quick she was to redefine her image against the tide of misunderstanding and how quick everyone was to ignore her.
Shields is a perfect subject for a documentary of this ilk because she has so much to say. Much of “Pretty Baby” is Shields once again advocating for herself, either to camera or over clips, about what from her past she stands by and what feels uncomfortable in retrospect. She speaks lovingly of her sensual Calvin Klein ads, which she labels as “fun” and an opportunity to be clever.
Her discomfort, however, with her time on Franco Zeffirelli’s “Endless Love” endures. Unlike Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” of which she seems equal parts proud and unmoored by her part in, Zeffirelli’s film caused dissociation. Much of what she spent her young years in the spotlight doing was trying to figure out who she was and what she stood for beyond her looks.
Compared to Wilson’s last outing, “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” is a much more conventional retrospective documentary. This will be a highly educational film to those unfamiliar or too young to know Shields’ work, complete with clips from a number of her films and an exhaustive look at her life. Shields is her biggest on-screen advocate, but the movie is populated with a number of her friends — Laura Linney, Judd Nelson, Drew Barrymore — as well as writers and theorists who discuss her role in shifting gender relations in the 1980s.
There’s significantly less of Shields’ contemporary life than “Miss Americana,” which followed its possibly misunderstood woman around as she made decisions and learned to advocate for herself. In “Pretty Baby,” Shields has already made her decisions; she’s already defended herself to unflattering press. Here’s an opportunity to set the record straight right to the camera, at the loss of anything that resembles her life now. Any glimpse into her life — sitting around with friends and family — feels sorely staged and largely unnecessary.
There’s an overwhelming message here that Shields matters, not just in her early career, but beyond her controversial college years. A brief reflection on “Suddenly Susan” barrels into her experiences with marriage and motherhood and her vocal advocacy for those suffering from postpartum depression after her time in the woods. Her argument with Tom Cruise over the use of prescription medications is well-documented here, and perhaps a worthy tonic to the Cruise-fawning of late. Though his star endures more brightly, it was Cruise who had to apologize to Shields for his behavior.
“Pretty Baby” elides over many of the more controversial or “juicier” aspects of Shields’s life. Anyone looking for gossip about her relationships with Michael Jackson or Dean Cain will be left sorely disappointed. She is charitable towards her mother, despite their often strained relationship. It is, for the most part, a well-rounded documentary, more humane than its predecessors and not eager to label anyone a villain despite, well, “society,” the ever-changing big bad. Shields is eager to give the last word once and for all, and Wilson is more than happy to fold to that request.
What emerges is often repetitive and Wikipedia-esque, but Shields is a strong enough star to withstand that. Her true grace is her enduring charm and intelligence. Ever since she was young, she’s had something to say, and she’s good at saying it too.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.