Dipping gently into the world of high fashion, the latest film by Nicolas Winding Refn spins a tale of melancholy intrigue.
Young Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles to try and jump-start a modeling career, just like a thousand other young girls. As the movie begins, she’s just met Dean (Karl Glusman), a young aspiring photographer who gladly takes some shots of her that Jesse, in turn, shows to a modeling agent named Jan (Christina Hendricks).
Jan immediately decides that Jesse has “the look” and arranges for Jesse to have a session with a top-flight professional photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington). And there we see that Jesse has found her place in life, at least for the time being. As the session begins, she is distinctly uncomfortable, especially after Jack declares that it’s to be a private session and sends everyone else home.
Jesse’s new friend, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) offers to stay, but Jack sends her on her way. The tension rises; we know that Jesse is only 16, not the 19 years of age she claims to be (at Jan’s strong suggestion), and, having this in mind, and knowing that older photographers often abuse their position of power, we begin to actively fear for the young girl, especially when Jack tells her to strip.
Out of those tremulous circumstances, however, young Jesse finds power. She becomes stronger, confirming that her ambitions have led her to a world where she can find true fulfillment and happiness. As she later says, she has no other talents except that she is “pretty.” That surely reflects the strangled, limited worldview of someone who is only 16 years of age. All she can see is what is right in front of her, and what is right in front of her is a shallow world that is incredibly inviting to a teenager.
And so Refn follows along as Jesse plunges into a constricting world that doesn’t allow much, if any, free movement. Ruby’s friends Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) are fellow models who resent the intrusion of Jesse into their world; there’s only so much room at the top, after all, and Sarah and Gigi don’t appreciate the competition.
It’s a cutthroat business, and Jesse’s ascension surely will have a price to pay. Her relentless focus on her career, however, leaves little room for anything else. She resists Dean’s overtures and remains at the scuzzy motel where she first landed. Hank (Keanu Reeves), the motel manager, constantly glowers at her, and the room is pitifully crumbling, but it’s only a crash pad for Jesse. Her eyes are fixed on the stars and the stars have become terribly bright.
The Neon Demon is less interested in Jesse’s story than in the world that she inhabits. And even that, in itself, is little more than a launching pad for Refn’s exploration of what it means to be young and full of yourself and confident that the world is yours for the taking. It’s a fascinating yet frustrating experience that is completely compelling.
The film opens in select theaters in Dallas on Friday, June 24.