Liv is lovely and 23, and she spends much of Free the Nipple topless, trying unsuccessfully to shake off the NYPD cops who repeatedly arrest her for doing what any man might on a hot summer day.
Lithe and pale, Liv (Lola Kirke) is a convenient and appealing poster woman for the right to bare her breasts in public — and the most superficially sympathetic of prisoners. Her protests against the forcible social sexualization of women’s bodies — and the idea that they’re obscene — quickly attract the attention of another young woman, a reporter called With (Lina Esco), and together they strive to grow Liv’s stunt into a national protest.
Like Liv’s campaign, the film itself, based on real events, is well-intentioned and politically progressive. It passes the Bechdel test. It deconstructs harmful, pervasive social norms to a punky soundtrack. An older male journalist even helps With by using his connections, and doesn’t try to sleep with her! Meanwhile the camera lingers on pert nipple after pert nipple shimmering in the morning sun. Unfortunately, the film’s content is hardly as radical as its trappings. Its four central female characters speak in flat exclamations reminiscent of ’90s TV shows (“OK, people!”) and embody familiar tropes — the hypersexual activist, the fierce black woman descended from a Black Panther — without moving beyond them.
That said, it’s too rare for movies to depict women working together as friends to effect political change, and this one makes it seem righteous, loud, and fun as a rock concert. Free the Nipple won’t change the conversation, but it might help start one.