In the frozen wilds of Siberia, hundreds of girls have gathered to parade around (one can but hope heated) rooms in little more than their underwear. If these girls weren't so painfully skinny in the main, you'd call this a cattle call: the fashion world's agents are in town, on the lookout for the next Dasha, the next Irina. They find Nadya, a tall and pretty 13-year-old, whom international agent Ashley has decided has the right look (blonde hair, blue eyes, young) for the Japanese market; this country girl is then dispatched, wide-eyed, on her first overseas trip, and whatever fears one might have for her only redouble when it turns out no-one save the documentary crew is there to meet her at the airport, or apparently to accompany her as she totters on precariously high heels to her initial castings. This, presumably, is why Naomi Campbell throws a cellphone at her assistants whenever something isn't done right.
Ashley - a former model herself, with the cysts and fibroids to show for it - has no illusions as to the business she's in: she happens to have the eye for beauty each territory needs, but to her, the agent gig is just a job, one that has landed her a belated degree of control and a nice house in Connecticut she's in the process of selling. The fact she's swanning soullessly around her pool while the homesick Nadya is sobbing her eyes out in Tokyo suggests just how unprotected these girls are: asked to say they're fifteen rather than thirteen to land a particular contract, of course they acquiesce, because they don't know any better, and because their parents back home need the money each gig provides. One seasoned model points out that this form of exploitation is seen as a victimless crime: the girls are swept away with the promise of adventure and a better life, their parents get the money after the agents have taken their cut, and the corporations have a whole new roster of dewy, budding bodies with which to sell whatever it is they want to sell.
Yet the marketplace gets more aggressive, the girls younger and younger, and the world continues to skew towards youth, in dangerous and disturbing ways. The voice of reason I mention above belongs to a 23-year-old; Ashley can't be much beyond 27 or 28, if that. Meanwhile, the picture gets worse: a glimpse at Nadya's contract shows the agency retains the right to terminate any agreement, if these growing girls gain so much as one centimetre around the bust or hips, and the right to flog the girls in other territories, if they fail to turn a profit in Tokyo. The words "indentured" and "servitude" spring to mind. Happy endings seem unlikely to follow: when Nadya finally lands her first magazine shoot, and races downtown to pick up a copy, she discovers she's been styled in such a way that the viewer cannot see her face.
Girl Model, sympathetically directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, begins in a bleak place - the chilling processes at work mirrored in the trans-Siberian landscapes - and has nowhere to go but down towards a punchline that hits you in the gut, but its project is a critical one, and profoundly feminist with it: it's a vital corrective to such fashion fairytales as The Devil Wears Prada, and one hopes the clever title catches the eyes of twelve- or thirteen-year-olds on the hunt for sleepover entertainment, no matter that no-one watching it will be able to sleep easily afterwards. A big bad wolf like Terry Richardson would, one suspects, eat the likes of Nadya up before breakfast - and the fashion magazines, stealing the innocence of the poor to sell more rags to the rich, would do everything they could to gloss over it, by taking pretty pictures at the crime scene, and clearing the rank stench with free perfume samples.
Girl Model opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release on February 20.