This review contains spoilers.
Highly controversial due to dealing with child prostitution and showing naked 12-year-old Brooke. Pretty but detached. Poor acting from Brooke.
The pretty baby is twelve-year-old Violet, played by Brooke Shields. Violet has grown in the environment of a circa World War I brothel in New Orleans, where her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) practices the oldest of professions. The first scene of the movie shows Violet's strikingly beautiful face in the dark, lit beautifully, warmly from the side. We hear moaning of a woman, and see Violet watching solemnly. Gradually the sounds change into cries of pain, and we see it's a woman in labor that Violet is watching. The baby is a boy, and Violet dashes out to tell the big news to all her friends, which means all those who live in the place of business: the women, many busy doing their jobs, as well as some children and a black pianist. The setting of the movie has swiftly been established.
Pretty Baby is a testament to the fact that the 70's were vastly more liberated than our times, at least when it comes to sexuality. No American studio could make this film today. And if any other country tried to, George W. Bush would probably redefine his axis of evil and declare war against it. The controversy is that we see Brooke posing naked for the camera of her adult lover. In the fine words of eFilmCritic: "Yes, you heard me, [Brooke] was 12 and she got naked. Naked a lot. And I'm not talking "innocent cherub in the woods" naked, I'm talking "they tells me I'm real good at the sexin's stuff" naked. Now, this kind of flick obviously just screams for the bible-bashers and mind police to cast damnation upon it and anyone who dares see it." So given this, watching the movie gives you the extra pleasure of knowing They don't want you to. But enough of politics and back to the movie.
As the timid photographer Bellocq (Keith Carradine) first arrives to the brothel to take erotic art photographs of its women – including Violet's mother Hattie – he perceives Violet a nuisance that the bratty girl often is. Other men, however, are starting to take notice of her. While Violet's body is still near-flat, in a nice dress she is, with her face, a sight to behold. Many of her mannerisms are childish, but she does fine job at imitating the seductive acts of her mother's peers. After seeing the very obvious interest of one of the customers, and Violet's willingness to play along, the business owner, a frighteningly old woman, decides to auction Violet's virginity. Bellocq isn't one of the many bidders.
Violet sees the occasion as a normal part of life. Selling sex is what all the women she knows do. In the morning Violet is sore, but quickly giggling at the teasing talk about how she now knows why her mom is tired and cranky in the mornings.
Hattie has been courted by a well-off man, and is expecting a proposal. To Violet the message is clear: be attractive, and you'll get a nice man to provide you a comfortable life. At the same time, Violet has developed a childish crush on Bellocq, who, in his part, has quite forgotten his indifference toward her. When Hattie does marry and moves into another town, Violet insists on not coming along.
Soon, displeased by being disciplined, she finds out where Bellocq lives and takes her belongings there. Bellocq first attempts to refuse Violet's excited proposal of her moving in, and him sleeping with her and taking care of her, but as Violet tosses him down on the bed and demands to hear a reason, he can't give her one. And so she gets her way.
While Bellocq shows Violet affection and sleeps with her, he's also frequently frustrated with her childish, spoiled behavior. As to why Bellocq chooses to live with a prepubescent girl while refusing the propositions of grown women, no clear explanation is ever given. Be that as it may, Bellocq takes his relationship with Violet seriously, and he marries her. While it could be a failing of the movie that we never see him showing true passion for her, it is more likely intentional, showing the audience that his treating her as a wife is more a fantasy than a manifestation of true love for the child.
Violet relates to the arrangement pragmatically. Bellocq's company suits her fine, she likes the attention. In return, she repays Bellocq by taking care of him as women take care of men. To Bellocq's tender kissing and admission "I'm all yours, Violet," she replies as she's heard the prostitutes reply: "I'm gonna make you so happy. You're just my kinda man. You really are. I'm really good you know." This is not what Bellocq wants to hear. Violet's words are not all shallow though. She does have a crush, but lacks the right words.
The married life ends up short-lived. Hattie and her husband have settled down, and come to fetch Violet. Bellocq protests in vain, saying he can't live without her, but perhaps at the same time he does realize that Violet is a child and belongs with her family, not in a marriage.
While the movie has good ingredients, the execution falls short. Much of the blame falls on Brooke who, while suitably gorgeous, does fairly wooden acting. The story is told from the point of view of Violet, and fails to stir much emotion in the viewer. The daring handling of the subject matter nonetheless has merit, if only because of the uniqueness of it. You can argue the nudity is gratuitous, but would the movie deliver its message with anywhere near the same punch without it? If you like to be shocked a little – or a lot, if you're the prudish type – check out Pretty Baby.