Sundance movie review: 'Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields' makes powerful social commentary

Brooke Shields discusses her career and life in "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
1 of 5 | Brooke Shields discusses her career and life in "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a thorough portrait of an artist and person who has encompassed many aspects of culture.

The two-part docuseries uses Shields as a prism through which to explore the sexualization of young women.


Shields speaks of her career and personal experiences in an on-camera interview. Friends, colleagues and journalists also help place those experiences in social context.

There is a lot to cover in 136 minutes over two parts. The docuseries gives each significant moment in Shields' life focus for a few minutes each.

Those cultural analysts point out that when Shields first began to model as a child in the '70s, beauty standards were shifting from voluptuous adults to sexualizing youthful girls. To Shields, she was just working, but looking back she can recognize the positions she was put in.


Shields' 1978 movie Pretty Baby cast her as an 11-year-old sex worker. Hearing the way co-star Keith Carradine made her comfortable kissing him sounds unsettling now, though Carradine is not featured in the documentary to speak about it.

The documentary makes the valid point that Shields and her mother, Teri, drew criticism for allowing Shields to appear in the film. Director Louis Malle did not.

When Teri and Brooke sued a photographer for releasing nude photos he took of Brooke when she was 9, defense attorneys put Brooke on trial for being a young sex kitten. Brooke recognized how she was pressured to be mature and then punished for it.

When she was in college at Princeton, Shields had the opportunity to write her first book. She realized what many new writers learn when editors and publishers want different things.

Shields wanted to share her insightful observations about going away to college. The publisher wanted legwarmers and diet tips.

Headlines have already revealed that Shields talks about Michael Jackson in the docuseries. He spread what she alleges were rumors about her to benefit his image.

Other relationships with men illustrate how the way the industry portrayed Shields may have influenced how real partners valued her, as well as how she saw herself in relationships.


When Shields talks about her rape, it drives home how societal messages make women question their own fault in sexual attacks. That's true of all women, let alone one who was employed by the very system that perpetuates that confusion.

The docuseries also shows the work it takes to undo that conditioning as an adult. Shields doesn't do it alone. Her friends help and support her.

Shields' fertility and postpartum issues still speak to the pressure she put on herself, because the industry drove her to succeed. She saw infertility as something she had to fix, and postpartum depression blindsided her.

Shields went public about postpartum depression in her book Down Came the Rain and shares details of the surprisingly violent thoughts she had. The docuseries points out that this, too, speaks to societal expectations of women, this time of mothers.

Mothers are promised a magical bond with their newborn, but Shields had a different experience. Coming forward, she was still vilified by powerful people but she stood up for herself.

Going through decades of career and personal turmoil does not necessarily come to a place of resolution, but rather of progress. The cameras capture an illuminating conversation between Shields and her daughters that suggest moving these issues forward with healthier ideals, but they're still a work in progress.


Brooke Shields is certainly an interesting enough figure to warrant a detailed biographical documentary. The social context of a young model turned actor turned writer and advocate also illuminates what the experience taught the world about Shields and taught her about the world.

Hulu will release Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields after Sundance.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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