Sundance Review: From Child Model to Activist and Survivor, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields Chronicles Years in the Spotlight

At times wildly uncomfortable and at others supremely empowering, director Lana Wilson’s (Miss Americana) new documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields takes a look at the entirety of Shields’ life and career (which are practically one in the same) from the perspective of the subject herself. The film traces her manager-mother Teri’s successful attempts to push her into child modeling, which led into acting, beginning with her controversial appearance in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby at age 12. At every turn, especially during the 1980s, the underage Shields was in both movies (The Blue Lagoon, Endless Love) and as the face of Calvin Klein’s jeans ads, all the while being sexualized in ways she had little to no control over. It may seem obvious seeing it today, but at the time, people were weirdly accepting of it.

With ample testimonial from Shields today discussing her mindset at the time—from dealing with her mother’s alcoholism to a host of interviewers and talk show hosts asking her insanely inappropriate questions—Pretty Baby gives us a more well-rounded profile of its subject than anything being done during her peak career years. We move through her early romantic relationships, her strange pairing with Michael Jackson (who just wanted to hang out), her troubled marriage to Andre Agassi, and her college years, a time that effectively ended her movie career. Shields always comes across as honest and vulnerable, often taking part in things that were out of her control and in which she was frequently objectified.

The look into her present-day family life and her work to tear down some of the toxic and misogynistic practices in the entertainment industry is typified by her story about being sexually assaulted by a film executive in his hotel room (the film is the first time she’s told his story publicly). She doesn’t name her abuser, but his MO sounds a lot like Harvey Weinstein, whether it’s him or not. It’s a sobering and deeply moving story, and in her telling it, you can see her making it clear she’s stopped blaming herself for the attack and is taking agency over her identity all the more fully.

After being controlled and pushed into things most of her life, it’s great that the two-part documentary (soon to debut on Hulu) ends with the years in which Shields is in total control, from appearing in Grease on Broadway to a successful guest spot on “Friends” and the launch of her own sitcom, “Suddenly Susan.” It’s an inspiring, if tumultuous, story, especially when we consider how many child celebrities don’t grow up as to be as stable and thriving as Shields does.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.