To his credit, Sean Nalaboff’s Hard Sell has something very interesting to say, but probably not what he had in mind. It’s one of the most pro-sex worker films I’ve ever seen. Katrina Bowden plays Bo, an ex-stripper who gets pulled into a scheme by shiftless teenager Hardy Buchanan (Skyler Gisondo)—think Ferris Bueller with none of the charm or smarm—to flash her breasts at his underage classmates for $50 a pop. Despite the fact that this film is set in 2016, an age when free pornography has never been more accessible or ubiquitous, they make a killing. The twist is that few of his customers are actually interested in seeing her naked. As students at an elite Long Island private school, they have led their whole lives suffocating in an atmosphere of enforced bourgeois niceties and expectations. They see in Bo someone whose time and services are for sale and who won’t judge them for their personal problems. A group of young men smoke pot with her in a locker room to discuss their anxieties over giving their girlfriends oral sex. The son of an overbearing businessman hires her as an escort to a country club soirée and almost breaks down on the dance floor talking about his shortcomings. One young man seeks advice over his conflicting feelings concerning his possible homosexuality and one woman just wants someone to vent to about the racism she experiences on campus as the school’s sole Asian-American.
The film understands that sex is sometimes not the most important part of sex work. In that regard it’s one of the most gently subversive films on the topic I’ve seen in some time, but Hard Sell treats these ideas as window-dressing for Hardy’s coming-of-age story. It’s Hardy we’re supposed to sympathize with as he tries to gain confidence and repair his broken home life. His mother Lorna (Kristin Chenoweth, in one of the film’s truly great performances) self-medicates her mental issues with destructive amount of alcohol and pays more attention to her cancer-stricken dog that him. Hardy only begins his little “business” with Bo so he can make enough money to get the dog an operation. Bo’s character gets rudely shoved to the sideline in the second half as he learns about Life and Love through tried and true indie clichés. He even has a Big Speech where he shames the members of his school’s board over their treatment of their students. It’s all so trite and recycled, but that’s the problem with a lot of these low-budget films: they choose to center themselves around their most uninteresting characters.