She works hard for her money

If the success of a Sundance darling Little Miss Sunshine has taught us anything besides learning how to love again, it’s that “small,” independent films are officially indistinguishable from the clichéd safety and sentimentality of big-studio pictures.

It wasn’t always this way—early Sundance award-winners like Blood Simple, Stranger than Paradise, and Lizzie Borden’s newly released Working Girls (which won a Special Jury Prize in 1987 at Sundance, then called the Utah/U.S. Film Festival) challenged genre conventions and mainstream expectations, rather than submitting to them.

Working Girls tracks one day in the life of a group of prostitutes working at an upscale Manhattan brothel. Borden spent six months interviewing real-life prostitutes for research, and she succeeds in subverting our preconceptions—the bordello setting is so mundane it could be a dentist’s waiting room.

The film focuses largely on Molly, a Yale-educated photographer pulling two “shifts” a week. As she spends one long, emotionally draining day at the brothel, other working girls flit in and out of the picture—Dawn is a law student with an attitude; Gina is accommodating, but secretly revolted by her job; April is a long-timer who has taken some hard knocks; Mary is working her first shift after answering a Village Voice ad for “hostesses.”

A series of maladjusted perverts pass through the brothel’s door (even the “nice” johns are creepy), while the women talk about their job, aspirations and self-perceptions. The cast is stocked with amateurs, but the performances feel lived-in and the dialogue is sharp and surprisingly funny.

As the film develops, we realize the prostitutes in Working Girls symbolize the servitude and boredom endemic to almost any service job. The problems these women face—sexism, racism and exploitation—are hardly different then the ones faced by all working women.