This horrifying portrait of a late capitalist society trafficking its citizens' flesh like drugs (an analogy developed throughout the film) is a hard-line Marxist's wet dream. And like anyone else seeing Very Young Girls, the Marxist would do well to come equipped with a box of tissues. The first half of this New York City sex trade expose spirals like one of those humanitarian documentaries where things just keep getting worse. Arrogant pimps film their conquests, dreaming of a reality TV series; indifferent cops keep their distance–behind bullet-proof glass–from a desperate mother hoping to rescue her daughter; courts contemplate sending underage sex workers to jail; and the spirited young women at the center juggle extremely adult situations while still in their early teens (the average age of entry into the U.S. sex trade, we're told, is 13).
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom (just mostly). GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services), a perpetually under-funded organization that helps redirect young women in the sex trade towards safer, long-term careers and stable lives, dominates the film's second half. Therein, things resemble a kind of terrifying blend of rehab and Survivor-style reality TV. Some women flourish, get jobs, reconnect with their families, start their own, and resist the destructive if comforting allure of returning to their pimps. Others, like Ebony and Carolina (as misfortune would have it, this doc's most charismatic and endearing subjects), waver on the line between the frugal GEMS safe house, and the relative luxuries of "the life" and its sweet-talking father-lover-employer figures.
Certainly, Very Young Girls will speak to film-going Marxist's desires for stories about how the selling of lives and bodies has become part of normal life. Underneath its broad ideological implications though, this film is intensely humanist, concerned less with commodified bodies than with people for whom "normal life" is a beautiful if distant dream.