That's about it, though. We never find out what, if anything, Valentine reads, what kind of movies or music she likes or what she wants to achieve, apart from inhuman body specs and a vague notion of one day leaving the skin game and becoming a makeup artist. Early on, she asserts that the only good reason to go into the porn business is an enthusiasm for and skill at sex, and it's clear from the glimpses we're shown of her movies that Valentine is a confident sexual practitioner. Watching Valentine feign ecstasy in a reaction shot, a video's director turns to Fugate's camera and wails, "I will never believe another woman again!" In just about every other respect, however, Valentine seems to be a jittery wreck.
As neither a consumer nor an opponent of porn, I had no particular personal stake in where Fugate, a PBS filmmaker, was headed with The Girl Next Door, and at first I couldn't tell. Eventually, and happily, I realized that she wasn't headed anywhere on purpose; like the best documentarians, she was being led by her subject.
Valentine, a sweet, broad-faced blonde faintly reminiscent of Nicole Brown Simpson, was an adopted only child from Tulsa. Much doted on by her mother, she had a domineering, physically abusive father (though she insists she was never sexually abused). Later, as a young housewife, she was pressured by a similarly domineering husband to pose nude in an amateur photo contest. She won and was soon posing for Hustler spreads. She left the husband, headed for Tinseltown and, within months, was a major adult-video star.
Perhaps simply by virtue of having taken an other-than-sexual interest in her, Fugate appears to have attained an extraordinary intimacy with her subject. We see Valentine on the set and in her home. She assures us that she doesn't date, and then weeks thereafter giddily introduces us to her new boyfriend, a porn actor named Julian, a dim but unthreatening fellow whom she genuinely seems to love. Later we see her struggling to maintain her cheery manner after they break up. We see her visit a hypnotherapist to deal with her insecurities, and we see her crushed when she fails to win an adult-film award in Las Vegas.
The most shocking episodes are two graphic sequences in which we see Valentine undergoing plastic surgery. One is a liposuction and reduction of her preposterously large breasts (they were silicon-enhanced, before her porn days, at her husband's insistence) and the other is a fattening of her lips. This elective ravaging of her body, coupled with losing Julian and her disappointment at the award show, combine to give Valentine a weary, hardened look, and she soliloquizes, with a poignant lack of articulateness, about how she's trying to make her body "unrealistic" and how disconcerting it is to look in the mirror and see a stranger. Unsurprisingly, she also confesses that her sex drive has vanished.
This leads to the most touching episode in The Girl Next Door: Valentine's visit to her mother, stepfather and best friend back in Tulsa. These kind, loving, entirely nonjudgmental folks display a sensible and surprisingly funny attitude toward Valentine's career, and they seem to restore her strength.
The film is a wistful and at times almost harrowing chronicle, but it isn't depressing, because Fugate keeps things in perspective. Neither the sentimental Boogie Nights view of porn as liberating nor the victim-feminist view of it as oppressive is completely debunked -- there's no doubt that Valentine's work takes its toll on her, but even at her lowest point, she unhesitatingly asserts that the life she left for porn offered her far less autonomy. "It ended up saving my life," she tells her mother flatly, and it's not hard to believe. And in any case, there's no doubting who's the captain of her fate -- she's vigorously pursuing her course, for better or worse, by and for herself.