D: Lina Esco / 79m
Cast: Lina Esco, Lola Kirke, Casey LeBow, Monique Coleman, Griffin Newman, Zach Grenier, Jen Ponton, Sarabeth Stroller, Janeane Garofalo
Originally filmed in 2012, Free the Nipple occupies a curious place in both movie history and the history of feminist activism. Made to highlight the lack of conformity in the US when it comes to a woman appearing topless in public – some states have legalised it, many more haven’t – the movie failed to attract a distributor, and it seemed it would never be released, even to the home market. In order to combat this, the movie’s director and star, Lina Esco, started the movement that can be seen in the movie itself, and with the real life campaign gaining enough publicity, Free the Nipple eventually secured a release date towards the end of 2014 (and is now available to own).
It must be an odd situation for a movie maker to find themselves in: in order to get their movie noticed, they’ve got to orchestrate the very movement their movie is depicting. Is it life imitating art, or art defining life? Either way, Esco should be congratulated for not giving up on her movie, because even though it’s an uneven mix of female empowerment, feminist polemic and relationship drama, the movie has a great deal of charm, and a great deal of low budget energy.
Esco plays With, a journalist whose friendship with Liv (Kirke) leads to her writing an article on Liv’s views that society discriminates against women by allowing men to go bare chested in public without being challenged, whereas if a woman does it she’s likely to be arrested for indecency. But With’s article is dismissed, and she loses her job. Liv is secretly pleased: now With can devote her energies full time to challenging the law over public nudity. But With is initially hesitant, not knowing where to begin, but she seeks help from her friend Orson (Newman), and her mentor Jim (Grenier), and soon she and Liv are interviewing women who are prepared to support their efforts in gaining attention to the issue, and being a part of an organisation that is dedicated to “free the nipple”.
Of course, there are obstacles along the way, financial ones and personal ones, and when Liv is arrested, but With refuses to give up, partly out of loyalty to the cause, partly out of guilt surrounding Liv’s arrest and subsequent detention pending bail. In-fighting in the group also takes its toll, but throughout all the drama and the setbacks and the struggle to organise a rally in Washington D.C. featuring a hundred thousand topless women, the issue of gender equality is maintained at the forefront of what With and Liv are trying to achieve.
As mentioned above, Free the Nipple has a great deal of charm, and its indie vibe is a welcome approach, but while it’s a likeable movie that has much to say about the issue of gender equality, not all the elements fit so well together. Too often, Hunter Richards’ script opts for downplaying the difficulties of kickstarting a politically motivated movement – With et al are always broke, unable to get permits, ignored by the media – but they always come through, and while the mechanisms that keep them going don’t have to be seen in detail, an acknowledgment as to how they’ve managed it would have made quite a difference. As it is, each crisis that comes along appears easily dealt with, leaving the inherent drama feeling trivial and under-developed.
There’s also something of a romantic subplot involving Liv’s obvious attraction to With. Esco the director serves up several lingering shots of Liv looking at With longingly, and even has Esco the actress returning said looks with a degree of emotional uncertainty from time to time, but the script offers no resolution or definitive outcome. It’s almost as if, with all the other gender issues the movie is doing its best to address, that the idea of a same sex relationship being added to the mix was perhaps one “issue” too many. It’s a shame, as the concept of love borne out of political activism isn’t one that cinema tackles very often.
The movie also downplays the contributions of the secondary characters, preferring to focus on With and Liv. As a result, most of these characters remain overshadowed throughout, with only LeBow (as the perpetually doubting Cali) and Grenier making much of an impact. Esco gives a spirited, invigorating performance, balancing With’s sense of injustice with her all too reasonable self-doubts, though With’s initial reluctance to go topless herself seems more of a clumsy storyline device than a real piece of character motivation. Kirke, meanwhile, cements her rising reputation as an actress to watch, with a portrayal of Liv that combines vulnerability, emotional longing, an impetuous nature, and enough quirky behaviour to make her immensely likeable at first meeting (even if she is a little naïve as well). And there are some lovely moments when Liv’s need to be a follower rather than a leader are expressed with just the right amount of insecurity and unspoken pliancy.
Elsewhere, the political elements hold sway, but while these are the movie’s main focus, sometimes it gets itself caught up in its own rhetoric. One minor character is heard to say that revolution isn’t the right word for what is happening; instead it should be an evolution. Unfortunately the script, and Esco’s direction, doesn’t make it clear if this is meant to be satirical or not, so the viewer is left with the uneasy feeling that the character is being serious. The movie also makes more of the movement’s “struggle” than it needs to. There are times when their cause is regarded – by its followers at least – as world-changing, even though most countries already have a relaxed approach to women going topless (legally or otherwise), and the which is worse argument, violence or sexual imagery, is trotted out as if it was the only argument needed to settle the debate (though to be fair, there’s very little debate involved; the Girlrillaz, as they’re dubbed, organise their rally quite easily in the end, and other groups in other countries follow suit, and there you have it).
For a movie that espouses the freedom to go topless in public, Free the Nipple does evidence some confusion over whether to show the “offending” objects or not. Early on, and at different times in the movie, women seen going about New York with their breasts exposed have them pixellated. It’s only when Kirke and Esco go topless later in the movie that the pixels are (mostly) abandoned for good. If there’s any kind of message here then it seems to have been lost in the editing stage because there doesn’t appear to be any reason for it. And while Esco the director eventually does as the title suggests, there’s lot of occasions where her framing and shot choices still leave any exposure struggling to be just that. This leaves the movie looking like somewhat of a tease in certain scenes (which Esco is unlikely to have intended), whereas if the viewer had been confronted with bare breasts from the start, their very matter-of-factness may well have achieved exactly what the movement wanted in the first place: for no one to be bothered by the sight of a free nipple.
Rating: 6/10 – though it struggles from time to time in telling its story with a clear sense of purpose, Free the Nipple is nevertheless an enjoyable, if disappointing, look at how distorted our view of the female form has become over the years; when it’s able to overcome its more zealous moments, the movie has some pertinent things to say about sexist attitudes in general, but they’re not always easy to find amongst all the distractions provided by the script.