First up on Lifetime's prime-time schedule last night was a "world premiere" film with the provocative — to say the least — title "From Straight A's to XXX," telling the pretty sad tale of Miriam Weeks (the attractive and appropriately perky Haley Pullos — whose name is the sort of thing that in the days of classic Hollywood got changed; who, the studio chiefs thought back then, would want to see "'The Wizard of Oz,' starring Frances Gumm"?), who gets accepted to her "dream" college, Duke University (and it was a bit startling to hear the name of a real university in a Lifetime movie instead of a fictitious one like "Whittendale," though given that this is the story of a young woman who pays for college by selling her body sexually it would have fit right into the "Whittendale universe"), only just as she gets the news that she's in, her dad, Dr. Kevin Weeks (Peter Graham-Gaudreau), receives word that he's being sent to Afghanistan. This means that the family's income is about to take such a major nose-dive that the Weekses, Kevin and his wife Harcharan (Imali Perera) — I don't recall hearing her first name on the soundtrack but that's what IMDb.com says it is — can no longer afford to cover her tuition.
So what's a poor young college girl to do? She discusses this with her college roommate Jolie (Sasha Clements) — who is really from Oklahoma but has spent enough time in New Orleans to acquire a (bad) Southern accent and a lassiez-faire attitude towards public displays of casual sex (of course Miriam asks her about Mardi Gras and Jolie fends off the question with a hauteur that indicates she's bored with the whole ritual and if you've seen one Mardi Gras you've pretty much seen them all) — and they joke about various options. Miriam doesn't want to take out student loans — "My dad didn't finish paying off his student loans until I was in middle school!" she whines — and she doesn't want a job as a waitress, not only because it's demeaning but because the low pay for a waitress in North Carolina (where the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal one) is barely going to make a dent in the $65,000 per year Duke charges for its education. "Maybe we could rob a bank," Jolie jokes — and Miriam jokes back, "Or I could be a porn star." Eventually, using the nom de porn "Belle Knox," she shoots to the top of the porn world even though maintaining her double life — neatly dramatized by director Vanessa Parise (a cut above the general run of Lifetime directors) in a series of intercuts between Miriam's and Belle's Facebook pages — gets harder and harder, as she's shown frantically plowing her way through a thick and impenetrable women's studies text during breaks on her porn shoots. Meanwhile, an Asian-American student named Jeff discovers Belle's videos online and recognizes her as Miriam, and soon it's all over Duke that one of their nice young freshgirls is doing porn.
The credits say this film was "inspired by a true story," but it also travels down the same roads seemingly hundreds of previous Lifetime movies have gone before, though I give writer Hess credit for not having Miriam get hooked on drugs to sustain herself through her porn work — a plot twist usually de rigueur for these sorts of titillating stories about nice young girls who get involved in sex work and then lose control. (Maybe Hess and director Parisse figured they'd already done the innocent-girl-seduced-into-the-drug-scene number in their previous film "Perfect High" and didn't need to do it again.) As familiar as most of this story is, we never feel for Miriam so much as we do when it seems like she's lost all sources of community and been rejected by her family, her college friends and her porn friends. The story lurches to a close as Miriam closes out her freshman year and then, two years later, speaks at a rally of pro-sex feminists and says that feminism ought to be about a woman's right to make choices about her own life — including selling her body on screen for money, if that's what she wants and feels she has to do. It's an O.K. ending but an oddly inconclusive one for a film that, as familiar as the paths it trods are, does have some unique aspects and also makes me wish Vanessa Parise would be able to break out of the Lifetime ghetto, get some decent scripts and take a run at feature films.
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