Learning the Tricks of the Trade


Pretty Woman it’s not. Stella Does Tricks turns an unsparing eye on the seamy, dangerous world of a teenage prostitute. Stella (Kelly MacDonald) escapes a dead-end Glasgow life and the sexual abuse of the father she once adored; but instead of the freedom she imagined she’d find on the streets of London, she winds up under the thumb of an even more vicious substitute father—a middle-aged pimp named Mr. Peters (James Bolam). Mr. Peters likes Stella to dress up like a 10-year-old (teddy-bear book bag, thigh-length plaid skirt) and jerk him off, ever so discreetly, in public places. “Now lick your hand clean and you can have your ice cream,” he instructs her. It’s one of many stomach-turning moments. Mr. Peters looks like a fat, white slug, as do Stella’s stand-up comedian dad and most of her johns. Eventually, Stella finds a cute, skinny, young boyfriend (Hans Matheson), but he’s a junkie and treats her as badly as all the others do. There are no good men in this movie—only a variety of corrupt bullies who take out their rage on women. They believe it’s their privilege to do so, and their sadism is boundless.

Stella’s only refuge is her imagination. At her worst moments, she escapes in her head to a place that’s not necessarily happier, but where she controls the images. The film shifts abruptly between the real world and Stella’s interior world of memories and fantasies. Her most pleasurable fantasies are of revenge, and what makes the film bearable is that she acts on them. She blows up cars, she throws lighter fluid on a significant part of her father’s body and sets it ablaze, she tips the cops off to Mr. Peters’s pedophilia and watches while they take him away. Revenge makes her jump and shout, but it doesn’t set her free. The film has an ambiguous double ending, and the meaning of the last shot is unclear. Is it a final wish-fulfillment dream for Stella and for us, or is it really happening? Either way, Stella Does Tricks is extremely disturbing and difficult to resolve—on the screen and in the mind.

The film grew out of a documentary series on homelessness that director Coky Giedroyc made for British television in the mid ’90s. Giedroyc has a documentarian’s eye for detail and will to probe for the truth. She’s also immensely skillful at placing the camera so that we feel the full horror of what’s happening without it being shoved in our face. For all the nasty sex, the film is never sensationalistic.

The actors seem to have checked their egos off-camera. Most of them are playing loathsome characters, and they neither sentimentalize them nor make their villainy attractive. But it’s MacDonald, with her strongly boned face, her quick-witted eyes that can turn from hopeful to wary and hard to dreamy in an instant, and her buoyant, purposeful way of moving, who carries the film. She makes Stella a mesmerizing bundle of contradictions. Stella Does Tricks would be inconceivable without her.

** If Stella Does Tricks comes out of the strongest tradition of British TV realist drama and documentary, The Big Tease is strictly boob tube. (To be specific, the film is Scottish, but I doubt many Scots would welcome the connection.) A sub-sitcom stretched to an interminable 85 minutes, The Big Tease follows the adventures of Crawford Mackenzie (Craig Ferguson), a dim-witted but determined Scottish hairdresser who flies to L.A. under the misapprehension that he’s been invited, all expenses paid, to participate in an international hairstyling competition when, in fact, he’s merely been sent a form letter inviting him, at his own expense, to be part of an informed audience. With a documentary filmmaker (Chris Langham) following his every move, Mackenzie mounts a frantic campaign to gain his rightful place in the competition and finds an unlikely champion in Candy Harper (Frances Fisher), publicist to the stars, who never again will have to suffer a bad hair day.

Ferguson, a well-known Scottish comedian, who lives in L.A. and is one of the regulars on The Drew Carey Show, is the moving force behind The Big Tease. He’s the cowriter, coproducer, and star. In the press notes, he claims to have wanted to make a film that deals with a gentler side of Scotland than did Braveheart or Trainspotting. He also claims to have come up with the story over lunch. I don’t doubt him for an instant.

** Restaurant has been sitting on the shelf for a few years. It was shot before Lauryn Hill, who plays a small but pivotal role, became Lauryn Hill. You’d think that Hill’s name in the credits of an indie film that’s a bit more serious than most of the stuff out there would have hooked at least some small distributor, but nothing doing. Not to mention that the film stars Adrien Brody as the anguished, alcoholic bartender of a Hoboken hot spot.

Set in a familiar world of actors, singers, and writers temping in restaurants until they get their big break, Restaurant takes on the difficult subject of race as it plays out in the daily life of twentysomethings. Chris (Brody), an aspiring playwright, is pining over Leslie (Hill), his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, while putting moves on a new waitress (Elise Neal). Chris’s obsession with black women adds a sexual charge to a workplace where African Americans have been limited to the low-paying jobs. During the course of the film, the restaurant hires its first African American bartender.

Chris, who grew up in a racially mixed, low-income Newark neighborhood (this is an insider’s New Jersey film), knows that his guilt over his father’s bigotry has something to do with his choice of girlfriends, but he’s too angry and neurotic to understand what’s going on inside him. The film tries to explore the complexity of white racism, but it falls into a whites über alles trap when Chris’s ex returns to tell him that she’ll never love her black fiancé as much as she loves him. Why not one but two stunning black women should fall for this angry young white man is a mystery that the film fails to engage. Despite this contradiction, Restaurant raises provocative issues, particularly for white audiences, and it’s sad that it has the gatekeepers for that audience—festival programmers and indie distributors—running scared.

Director Eric Bross has a smooth nonstyle that serves him well until the screenplay turns melodramatic at the end. Attempting to ratchet up tension, Bross relies on forced crosscutting and stagey clichés. The ensemble cast is pleasant enough, and Brody performs with his usual intensity, even when Bross and screenwriter Tom Cudworth lose track of the fact that this is a film about relationships, and not one white boy’s show.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 25, 2000

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